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New York Governor Pledges Action After Revelations Of Nail Salon Work Conditions

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has announced the creation of a task force to investigate and tackle abuse in the state's more than 2,000 nail salons. The announcement Sunday comes just days after The New York Times ran a two-part series alleging rampant underpayment, unsafe living and working conditions, frequent exposure to dangerous chemicals, worker abuse and ethnic hierarchies in New York's nail salon industry.

"We will not stand idly by as workers are deprived of their hard-earned wages and robbed of their most basic rights," said Cuomo in a statement. "This task force will crack down on these kinds of abuses in the nail salon industry, enforce all of New York's health and safety regulations, and help ensure that no one, regardless of their citizenship status or what language they speak, is illegally victimized by their employer."

According to the announcement, the task force will put new health and safety requirements in place for nail salon employees, including mandatory insurance policies and the posting of employees' rights in salons. Authorities will be available to help employees recover unpaid wages and will issue fines and penalties for violations of "all relevant laws and regulations." The task force will also seek to revoke the licenses of "egregious offenders" and shut down unlicensed businesses.

The task force's creation seems to be a direct result of the Times investigation. The first of a two-part series called "Unvarnished" was published Thursday and examined the working conditions of nail salon workers in the New York Metro area. The findings were shocking. The Times said:

"[A] vast majority of workers are paid below minimum wage; sometimes they are not even paid. Workers endure all manner of humiliation, including having their tips docked as punishment for minor transgressions, constant video monitoring by owners, even physical abuse. Employers are rarely punished for labor and other violations."

The investigation found that some workers were paid as little as $10 a day, which came out to about $1.50 an hour. Some were even paid nothing at all on slow days. Workers were routinely made to pay their employees for training and often received no pay during their first days and weeks of work. Many lived in cramped and crowded rooms or apartments. Employees were often exposed to nail-product ingredients linked to cancer, miscarriages and lung diseases. Many of the workers are undocumented, and as a result they are often afraid to go to authorities to report abuses.

The Times also found evidence of what it called a "rigid racial and ethnic caste system" at work in New York-area nail salons:

"Korean workers routinely earn twice as much as their peers, valued above others by the Korean owners who dominate the industry and who are often shockingly plain-spoken in their disparagement of workers of other backgrounds. Chinese workers occupy the next rung in the hierarchy; Hispanics and other non-Asians are at the bottom."

Cuomo's office says officials conducted a "comprehensive investigation into nail salons" in May 2014. The Times reports that was the New York State Labor Department's first-ever nail salon sweep and that it came "about a month after the Times sent officials there an inquiry regarding their enforcement record with the industry." Twenty-nine nail salons were inspected, and 116 wage violations were found. In announcing the new task force, Cuomo's office urged any workers who have been underpaid or who are concerned about safety or workplace abuses to contact the task force.

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Sam Sanders is a correspondent and host of It's Been a Minute with Sam Sanders at NPR. In the show, Sanders engages with journalists, actors, musicians, and listeners to gain the kind of understanding about news and popular culture that can only be reached through conversation. The podcast releases two episodes each week: a "deep dive" interview on Tuesdays, as well as a Friday wrap of the week's news.