Six Nail Salon Workers from China Win Federal Law Suit Over Wage Disputes

The Chinese Staff and Workers Association and the organization Justice Will Be Served announced a jury award on Tuesday in a successful lawsuit in which six Chinese nail salon workers sued a chain of high-end nail salons for failing to pay a minimum wage and overtime compensation.The nail salon workers were represented by The Legal Aid Society. Aaron Halegua, a staff attorney in the Employment Law Unit, who worked on the case for more than two years, was the lead trial attorney.

The lawsuit was filed in December 2009 in the federal court for the Eastern District of New York and alleged that the nail salons failed to pay them in accordance with the Fair Labor Standards Act and the New York Labor Law, which require, among other things, that employees be paid a minimum wage and be paid overtime compensation. Four of the employees, who were still working at the salons when they filed this lawsuit, were then fired nearly one month later in retaliation for filing the lawsuit.

The case was tried before Judge Leonard D. Wexler at the federal courthouse in Central Islip on Long Island and lasted approximately one week. The jury found that the nail salon failed to compensate the plaintiffs as required by the minimum wage and overtime laws, and awarded the plaintiffs over $160,000 for these violations. The jury also found that the nail salon illegally fired four of the plaintiffs in retaliation for filing the lawsuit and awarded these plaintiffs over $80,000 in backpay.

The New York Times
Saying Court Win Helps, Nail Salon Workers Rally
By Sarah Maslin Nir
Published: April 10, 2012

For legions of New York’s glossiest women, for whom a trip to the nail salon is a weekly must, “square shape or round?” is often the most they will ever hear from their manicurist.

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But six long-suffering nail lacquerers were rewarded when they raised their voices against the owners of a chain of Long Island nail salons, saying they were paid below minimum wage and forced to toil in an abusive environment. Ignored by their bosses, who they said sometimes went so far as to kick the stools on which they sat as they sloughed off calluses and buffed toes, they took their complaints to federal court. And last month, the workers — all Chinese immigrants — were awarded nearly $250,000 after a weeklong jury trial.

The victory coincides with a push to organize by salon workers across the city, a group largely made up of thousands of immigrants from China, Korea, Nepal and countries in South America, who work long hours painting nails Ballet Slipper pink or Jelly Apple red. Advocates said the movement suggested that this historically docile labor force was growing more assertive.

“Organizing within the nail salon industry has been very difficult,” said Sarah Ahn, an organizer with a coalition of service workers advocacy groups — they call their campaign “Justice Will Be Served!” — that fought for the salon employees. “Victories show there is a way that if you come forward, you can fight and win.”

De Ping Song, one of the workers, said he expected more of his peers to join in. “We all are facing the same conditions,” he said through a translator at a news conference on Tuesday. “Because all the workers have had enough of these sweatshop conditions, I believe workers will stand up with us to fight for everybody.”

At the three Babi Nails salons in the suit, which are in Greenvale, Glen Head and Carle Place, workers answering the phone on Tuesday said the owners could not be located.

The lawsuit, filed in United States District Court in Central Islip in December 2009, claimed that the workers were paid far less than the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. Work weeks of more than 40 hours were standard, the workers said, but they were never paid overtime as required by the Fair Labor Standards Act and New York labor law.

For the past year, the workers — four of whom were fired shortly after filing the suit — picketed the salons weekly, joined by other workers who rallied to their cause. Aaron Halegua, a lawyer at the Legal Aid Society who represented the workers in court, said three of the four fired workers were reinstated through a settlement with the National Labor Relations Board after the workers claimed the dismissals were in retaliation.

The verdict was delivered on March 22 after a trial before Judge Leonard D. Wexler. The jury found the workers were owed a total of about $160,000 in unpaid wages and about $80,000 in overtime. The jury did not find the workers’ claims of abuse and discrimination by the owners, who are Korean, to be substantiated.

Advocates for the workers in the lawsuit said that though the fear of losing jobs had silenced some workers, they were hoping the verdict in the Long Island case, as well as past successes, like in 2009 when workers rallied against Simply Nails, an Upper West Side salon, would embolden others seeking higher pay or better working conditions.

“I think more and more we see groups of employees” fighting back, said Wing Lam, the executive director of the Chinese Staff and Workers’ Association, where the salon employees first sought help several years ago.

“In the past, they probably quit the jobs,” he said, “not because people don’t want to fight, but they see the law as weak.”

Ex-workers laud verdict
April 11, 2012
By Robert E. Kessler

A former worker at a Carle Place nail salon yesterday hailed a $250,000 verdict she and her co-workers won in a federal wage discrimination case and said workers who have similar grievances should not be afraid to organize and go to court.

"I'm very happy. American law is just," said Yan Zhang, of Flushing, after a news conference at St. George's Episcopal Church in Flushing.

The news conference, to publicize the recent verdict in federal court in Central Islip, was called by the Legal Aid Society and a coalition of groups attempting to organize workers in the nail salon and restaurant businesses who they say are discriminated against in both wages and workplace treatment.

Zhang, who gave her age as "over 40," and five co-workers at the Babi nail salon in Carle Place had sued the nail salon and its owners over failure to pay minimum wage or overtime, and for potential wages lost when they were fired after filing their lawsuit.Zhang was awarded $70,000; she and her five co-workers were awarded the total of $250,000.

Aaron Halegua, of the Legal Aid Society, who was the lead attorney for the workers, said that they could be awarded more money, because U.S. District Court Judge Leonard Wexler in the case still has to decide whether the six are entitled to compensatory damages.

But a lawyer for the nail salon's former owners, Saul Zabell, of Bohemia, said "It's a hollow victory."

Zabell, who said his clients recently sold the salon, said that the workers had asked for millions of dollars, and had also accused the salon of discriminating against them because they were Chinese and the owners were Korean.

The jury found no discrimination, Zabell said.

Zabell also said about $100,000 of the total award was based on wages that the workers would have received had they not been let go. But he is contending that federal law does not permit undocumented workers to receive money for work they do not perform.

So Zabell said he has asked Wexler to allow him to determine if any of the six are in the country illegally.

Halegua disagreed with Zabell's interpretation of the law and said that the status of the workers was irrelevant.

The coalition of groups that is attempting to organize workers in the nail salon and restaurant industries includes: The Justice Will Be Served! Campaign; the Chinese Staff and Workers Association, and the Restaurant Workers Union.

View the full complaint (PDF)