New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced Monday that 143 nail salons — most of them in New York City — have been ordered to pay $2 million in unpaid wages and damages to employees. But the state assemblyman who sponsored legislation last year to combat worker abuse in the industry said those figures show wage theft for nail salons is not as serious an issue as was believed.
"New York State is cracking down like never before on the unscrupulous individuals that take advantage of the hardworking people they employ," Cuomo said in a statement. "A fair day's wage for a fair day's work is a principle that this state was built upon, and this administration is committed to stopping employers who exploit workers and deny them what they are rightfully owed."
The governor's announcement comes almost a year after he launched a taskforce into worker exploitation in the nail salon industry, a measure enacted after a two-part expose published by the New York Times.
Since last May, the state Labor Department has completed 383 investigations into more than 450 nail salons, the governor's office said. There are around 6,000 nail salons throughout New York, Cuomo spokesman Frank Sobrino told NBC News in an email.
Roughly 74 percent of the nail salons that owe the unpaid wages and damages are in New York City, Sobrino said. The majority of salons were chosen randomly for inspection, though some were selected because of complaints, he said. Around $600,000 has already been paid back to the 652 workers, Sobrino added.
To ensure nail salon workers receive any unpaid wages, Cuomo announced in August that salon owners would be required to purchase wage bonds, to be activated if they failed to pay employees. In the months that followed, the mandate drew the ire of many Asian-American nail salon owners, who said they were difficult to obtain. Alleging that the requirement was discriminatory, two Asian-American trade groups sued the state in September to halt the mandate, but their lawsuit was dismissed in December.
To date, owners of roughly 67 percent of nail salons statewide have been able to secure wage bonds, according to the governor's office. It was unclear how many were activated to pay back the $2 million in wages and damages.
State Assemblyman Ron Kim, the main sponsor of the nail salon legislation signed into law in July, told NBC News he was happy to hear that unpaid salon workers would be able to recover their wages. But Kim, whose Queens district is home to many salons owned by Asian Americans, added he believes the numbers released Monday prove wage theft isn't as pervasive in the nail salon industry as was led on.
"There's no place for any form of exploitation of workers in New York State," Kim said. "And we want to be helpful to those individuals who were impacted by bad [employers]. So I feel glad that we can help those workers, and I hope they get the recourse they deserve."