Nail salons close in protest along Jamaica Avenue

By Gabriel Rom

A stretch of Jamaica Avenue was surprisingly quiet one day last week as many of the avenue’s nail salons had closed and posted stark messages of protest on their shuttered security gates.

“We need help not fines,” read one sign which was taped to the gate of Judy Nails on Jamaica Avenue and 117th Street.

The group of salons, which spanned Woodhaven and Richmond Hill, closed Sept 1 to protest what they say is an overly aggressive and complex regulatory regime imposed by state authorities in the wake of an explosive New York Times report on working conditions in the region’s nail salons.

“While most nail salon owners are first-generation Asian minorities who don’t speak fluent English, the government has never provided them with any resources or assistance,” the letter continued.

The protest came in conjunction with a petition submitted last Friday by nearly 500 New York nail salon owners and workers calling on the Cuomo administration to reverse a new requirement that they purchase wage bonds or face penalties. This is just one component of the state’s expansive push for regulation, which includes a multi-agency labor task force and an array of emergency regulations, many of which have been codified into law. .

The bond requirement, which says owners must purchase insurance as security in case they are arrested on unpaid wages charges, was announced by the governor, 11 days after the Times’ exposé, and signed into law in August. Salon owners are now asking for a degree of leniency to adapt to what they see as a dramatically changed regulatory environment.

“Requiring owners to secure a wage bond will help ensure workers are paid what they are legally owed and that businesses have the funds they need to meet their financial obligations,” Cuomo said in a statement.

“Whenever you are challenging the status quo, and whenever you are fighting for a disadvantaged group of people, we expect some vocal opposition,” Alphonso David, counsel to the governor said, “But it doesn’t mean that opposition has merit.”

Pina Kim, manager at NYC Nails in Woodhaven was adamant that salons were being unfairly targeted.

“The government is just focusing on employees, but they don’t think about the employer,” she said. Kim complained that the new stipulations regulators were demanding would put her in a difficult financial position. According to her, the regulations are only financially feasible for nail salons that charge high prices, which she says amount to only around 5 percent of salons in the city. For the rest of the shops, including all of those on Jamaica Avenue, “we still use the old price, we still charge only $10 to $15 for a manicure/pedicure, and we don’t have the money for all these new changes.”

A frequent customer at the area’s nail salons noted a recent rise in rates.

“Prices have been going up, especially since the Times article came out,” said the woman, who only gave her first name as Carina and who is a regular at salons along Jamaica Avenue. “If they continue to increase, these salons are going to start going out of business.”

Helen Chang manager of New York Nails, another salon which closed in protest, said “the government is not being fair to us.”

State Assemblyman Ron Kim (D-Flushing), whose district includes many nail salon owners and workers, has argued that salons could end up bankrupt because of high insurance rates and lack of bond availability.

Of 694 wage bond applications processed through the end of August, 98 percent were approved, according to Frank Sobrino, a spokesman for Andrew Cuomo. Since May, he added, the four agencies involved in the inspections of nail salons have inspected more than 1,000 salons and issued more than 2,500 violations.

Reach reporter Gabriel Rom by e-mail at grom@cnglocal.com or by phone at (718) 260–4564.

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