The first question most people had after reading two New York Times stories about rampant labor abuses and health risks in nail salons was, "What can I do about it?" For New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, the answer was a lot, and on Monday he announced emergency measures to improve conditions and crack down on exploitative employers.
In a statement, Cuomo unveiled a new task force that will investigate salons and roll out regulations, as well as educate workers — many of whom are undocumented immigrants with limited English skills — about their rights. “New York State has a long history of confronting wage theft and unfair labor practices head on, and today, with the formation of this new Enforcement Task Force, we are aggressively following in that tradition,” Cuomo's statement read. “We will not stand idly by as workers are deprived of their hard-earned wages and robbed of their most basic rights.” As the exposés showed, wage theft and health hazards are all too common for the women and men who spend their days scrubbing calluses and painting nails. Salon staffers can spend months working for little or no money, and end up making far less than minimum wage when they finally do get paid. On top of punishing hours and abusive wages, the nail salon trade comes with hazardous chemicals that its employees must endure as they work tirelessly. The women profiled in the now-viral NYT story story have suffered miscarriages, skin and respiratory problems, and had children with developmental issues. The new measures will require salon workers to wear gloves and masks, but the masks may not help protect against some of the most dangerous chemicals. Health officials will also study what will better reduce these risks. If conditions for workers are going to improve, government officials and consumers will have to do more, but Monday's announcement is a start. It's also an example of how powerful journalism can be.