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'Quietly Suffering': Former California Nail Salon Employees Sue for Labor Violations

The women say they did not receive minimum wage and overtime compensation during their time at Tustin Nail Spa in Orange County.

Four former employees of a Southern California nail salon last month filed a complaint against their former employers for alleged wage and hour violations.

According to the complaint, Jenny Hoang, Thu Pham, Trinh Thi Tyet Truong, and Tuyet Mai Nguyen say they did not receive minimum wage and overtime compensation during their time at Tustin Nail Spa in Orange County. The complaint also alleges that the four worked long hours without meal and rest breaks.

At Tustin Nail Spa, the plaintiffs were allegedly compensated based on a commission system where they received about 60 percent of what customers paid for nail services, regardless of the number of hours they worked. Their pay was further deducted for using business supplies, such as spa chairs, and absorbed discounts offered to customers, John Trang, an attorney at Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Los Angeles representing the plaintiffs, told NBC News.

“Even though we smiled and seemed happy in front of customers, the truth was that we were quietly suffering,” Hoang, a plaintiff who had worked at Tustin Nail Spa for nearly a decade, said in a statement. “We did not fight back because we were grateful to have jobs as refugees who do not speak a lot of English, and we wanted to provide for our family and children.”

In 2013, Tustin Nail Spa was investigated by the State Labor commissioner for labor law violations, which resulted in citations of $28,000. Subsequently, the business created falsified documents to demonstrate that employees were working just 40 hours per week, Trang said. Fake paychecks were then created based off of the fake hours, though workers were actually compensated based on the number of customers they served, he added.

“Even though we smiled and seemed happy in front of customers, the truth was that we were quietly suffering."

The plaintiffs are currently seeking damages from three sets of owners who operated the nail salon at different times from 2005 to 2015. Tustin Nail Spa is currently owned by a fourth set of owners that Trang said they are moving to include in the lawsuit.

“We believe there’s some coordination among the defendants and lawyers. It makes the lawsuit more complicated because you have more people. Going after one wouldn’t be helpful, you have to go after all of them,” Trang said, arguing the business was sold multiple times to avoid liability.

Federico Sayre, the attorney representing the third owners, denied the claim that his client had any association with the previous owners.

“All that ended up happening is [my client] got sued because she became the nail salon owner, so they sued her for alleged wrongdoing by the previous owners, which she clearly could’ve had nothing to do with because she wasn’t the owner at the time,” he told NBC News.

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Under the ownership of Sayre’s client, Michelle Ta, there was discussion of changing employees to independent contractors. However, Sayre said his client maintained them as employees after the plaintiffs expressed opposition to it. Three of the workers came to the salon demonstrating, and Sayre said his client had to call the police to have them removed.

According to the complaint, Hoang, Pham, and Truong were allegedly terminated under Ta’s ownership with no reason provided. When they came into the salon to collect their belongings, it was then that Ta called police to have them removed, the complaint stated.

Nguyen remained at the salon until she was terminated by the current owners in September 2016, according to the complaint.

Of the four plaintiffs, two have found new jobs, one who was blacklisted in the nail salon community found a job about an hour away, and one remains unemployed, Trang said.

David Ezra, the attorney representing the first set of owners, Le Nguyen and My Le Tran, said his clients filed paperwork denying all liability in early 2015 back when the lawsuit was initially filed, and told NBC News in an email, “We do not try cases in the press.”

An attorney for the second set of owners did not respond to requests for comment.

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The plaintiffs themselves have also been represented by three different lawyers and are now being represented by Asian Americans Advancing Justice - Los Angeles after the first two stepped down for various reasons.

Nail salons constitute an $8.5 billion industry and are mostly run by first-generation Asian-American entrepreneurs, many of whom possess limited English proficiency, making it challenging for them to participate in the mainstream economy. Still, this type of business has been a tremendous benefit for the Vietnamese community, Trang said.

“But at the same time there is exploitation and there are employers that really are entering the middle and upper middle class at the expense of hardworking immigrant workers,” he said.

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