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Your Manicurist is Likely Being Paid Illegal Starvation Wages

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Ariel ZiontsAfter investigating 150 nail salons over 13 months, New York Times reporter Sarah Maslin Nir found that “manicurists are routinely underpaid and exploited, and endure ethnic discrimination and other abuse.” The findings are presented in a long-form multimedia story and offered in English, Spanish, Korean and Chinese.

Nir followed manicurists who, after leaving their cramped living arrangements, hop into vans that shuttle them to nail salons in the city and even into different states. When they first begin work, many are forced to pay a training fee of around $100-$200, sometimes more. Many remain unpaid during an “apprenticeship period” until they can prove they are skilled enough to deserve payment, but this payment is usually below minimum wage.

Twenty-one-year-old Jing Ren’s story illustrates this process. She paid $100 in a training fee, then worked three months without pay before earning a wage of less than $3 an hour.

Because nail salon workers are considered “tipped workers” under state and federal labor laws, they can be paid below the state’s $8.25 minimum wage; employers are required to make up the remainder of the worker’s pay if their hourly rate comes out to below minimum wage. The investigation found that bosses rarely provide that legally mandated supplemental pay. Overtime pay is similarly rare for manicurists, who may work up to 12 hours a day, seven days a week.

Nir also found that manicurists’ pay is often taken away for minor transgressions. When 47-year-old Qing Lin spilled a drop of nail polish remover on a client’s Prada sandals, she was forced to pay for damages and fired from the salon she worked at for 10 years. “I am worth less than a shoe,” she stated.

Pay also can correlate to ethnicity. Nir found that Koreans are paid the most, followed by Chinese and Latino workers. Non-Korean workers Nir spoke with are sometimes prohibited from speaking and forced to eat in a separate location. Other documented abuses include workers being monitored on video, physical and verbal abuse and poor safety standards that lead to cancer and miscarriages caused by exposure to chemicals and dust.

Nail salon owners are rarely investigated or punished for their labor violations. New York’s Department of Labor investigates a few dozen—around 1%—of the over 3,600 salons in the state per year. When investigated, the department finds wage violations 80 percent of the time. The Times said all but three of the more than 100 workers they interviewed have had wages withheld in illegal ways.

Because many manicurists are undocumented and are often unaware of labor laws and speak limited English, many do not report on their bosses’ illegal activities.

Nir is hosting a Facebook chat on Monday, May 11 at 1 PM EST. Participants are asked to submit questions ahead of time. If you want an ethical manicure, the Times has tips on that.

This blog was originally posted on In These Times on May 7, 2015. Reposted with permission.

About the Author: The author’s name is Ariel Zionts. Arielle Zionts is a Spring 2015 In These Times editorial intern and freelance reporter. In August she will join the Interfaith Voices radio show as a producer. She studied anthropology at Pitzer College and radio at the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies. Arielle loves to ride her bike and listen to public radio. She tweets at @ajzionts and her website is ariellezionts.com.


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In Streets of Chicago, Fast Food Workers Celebrate Small Victories

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kari-lydersenChicago workers continued the roving fast food and retail strike Thursday, joining strikers and picketers around the nation calling for increased wages and better working conditions for the thousands of low-wage workers who staff some of the nation’s largest companies but are not paid even enough to scrape by.

A crowd of workers and supporters sporting employee uniforms or red “Fight for 15” t-shirts—referring to the call for a $15 hourly wage—snaked through downtown streets all day, stopping to rally outside businesses, ranging from fast food outlets such as McDonald’s, Wendy’s and Chik-Fil-A to more expensive stores like Nike, Macy’s and Victoria’s Secret. Pharmacies, delis, health food stores and beauty salons were also on the route.

The mood was celebratory. Many workers said they had gotten raises, better schedules, more hours and better working conditions since the April 24 strike by the Workers Organizing Committee of Chicago (WOCC) union. While the union doesn’t have any contracts with employers or even official collective bargaining power, it has already leveraged the power of public pressure to gain concessions from major businesses. It is supported by a wide range of labor unions and community groups, as Jeff Schuhrke reported yesterday for Working In These Times.

Krystal Maxie-Collins, 29, says that, about a week after the April protest, she was promoted from part-time to full-time and got a raise from $8.25 to $8.50 an hour at her job at Macy’s. A mother of four, she said it is nearly impossible to make ends meet on retail wages that hover at or just above the state minimum wage of $8.25.

“You have rent, gas, lights, just the cost of living in Chicago,” she said. “Even being able to go to lunch and participate in society here in Chicago, you need more than $8.50 an hour. You should be able to afford to shop where you work, but I can’t do that unless there is a 60 percent off sale. It’s hard to even buy personal necessities. We’re not talking about wanting to get rich. We just want to get by and take care of ourselves.”

Outside one of downtown Chicago’s numerous McDonald’s franchises, one worker after another called in Spanish and English for higher wages.

Robert Wilson, 25, described working for a McDonald’s at Water Tower Place for seven years and getting only a single, 10-cent-per-hour raise. He finally got a 25-cent-per-hour raise after Black Friday last year, thanks to the retail-fast food workers movement, he tells Working In These Times.

Wilson described to the crowd how he has worked 15-hour days at two different stores when McDonald’s managers were in a pinch.

“It’s a shame to know I’ll give that kind of dedication to work, and not even receive paid sick days or a steady schedule, and have to negotiate for days off when I have an emergency,” he said. “We work too hard for this company to back down…we’ll keep fighting until we get what we deserve.”

The crowd went into the restaurant to try to deliver a petition, but police officers ordered them out.

“They’re just trying to raise the minimum wage,” said Monica A., 20, a passerby who saw the workers earlier in the day outside a Walgreens and, sympathizing with their message, decided to continue walking with them.

“$8.25, you can’t do anything on that, especially after they take taxes out and everything,” said Monica, who declined to give her last name.

McDonald’s unintentionally gave the fast food workers movement a boost last month when it published a sample budget for workers that was apparently meant to help them manage their money but instead highlighted for the country how nearly impossible it is to survive on their wages. The budget included a “second job” and even so did not cover realistic living expenses. Health insurance was penciled in at $20 a month, heat (in an earlier version) as “$0,” and gas and child care were not included at all.

It’s not only employees serving customers at private companies who make such low wages. Grace Hill works in the kitchen at Homewood-Flossmoor high school in the south suburbs, earning $9.87 an hour. Even as she makes healthy food for the students, she told Working In These Times, she can’t afford to buy healthy food for herself—a particular problem since she is diabetic.

“Half the time I can’t pay all my bills,” she said. “The school does have the money, they just aren’t giving it to us.”

Union employees of the Chicago Public Schools, including teachers, janitors and food service workers, were on hand to support the Fight for 15.

“Like all movements, it starts small, and then it will grow,” said Eric Ortega, 30, who works as a prep cook on Navy Pier.

Campaign organizer Deivid Rojas said it’s clear the movement has already made an impact and will continue to do so.

“We’ve had workers having victories in all kinds of ways,” he told In These Times. “They’re getting raises of $1 or $2 an hour, or moving from part time to full time. People have more predictable scheduling and report being more respected at work, by their managers and their co-workers.”

This article originally appeared on Working In These Times on August 1, 2012.  Reprinted with permission.  

About the Author: Kari Lydersen, an In These Times contributing editor, is a Chicago-based journalist whose works has appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Chicago Reader and The Progressive, among other publications.


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Boston’s Low-Wage Workers Affected by City’s Shutdown

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Kenneth QuinnellWhile most attention in the Boston tragedy is rightfully focused on the victims of last Monday’s bombings at the Boston Marathon, the damage done by the terrorist attacks didn’t end with the explosions or the subsequent shootout that led to additional deaths. Much of the city shut down during the manhunt for the terror suspects; and while most salaried employees could take the day off without losing pay, low-wage workers did not have that luxury. Other workers were forced to work long hours or brave dangerous conditions to get their jobs done.

Salon took a look at the various ways that the bombings affected workers in Boston, including a fear that many businesses will not compensate low-wage workers for the time off the city’s shutdown required:

“Most low wage workers can’t afford to lose a day’s pay, and there’s no doubt this lockdown will adversely impact the city’s working poor,” said Jessica Kutch, a labor activist who co-founded the organizing site coworker.org, in an email to Salon. “I’d really like to see employers state on the record that their hourly workers will be paid for the time they were scheduled to work today—but I suspect that most employers will place the burden of this shutdown squarely on the backs of people who can least afford it.”

Salon also reported that some businesses are requiring workers to use vacation time, although some relented in the face of internal pushback.

First responders, of course, have been working extended hours, with police and medical personnel working much longer than normal days:

Steven Tolman, the president of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO, told Salon, “They’re doing God’s work,” he said. “They’re exhausted, they’ve been working constantly. The heroism of the people who were there and saw things that they never thought they’d see in their life is just incredible.”

“It’s justification why public employees are entitled to a decent pension and the best health care because they put so much on the line in a time of need,” he said.

Workers in some industries have been necessary for supporting law enforcement engaged in the hunt for the suspects or stranded tourists while transportation has been limited:

Brian Lang, the president of UNITE HERE Local 26, told Salon that many of the hotel workers he represents have been working double shifts with little time off, as many of the guests have been unable to leave the city. Police from out of town have completely occupied some hotels, while authorities set up a command center at the Westin downtown, just blocks from the bombing.

“Those hotels were full of people all week, so our members in there were like the second responders,” Lang said. “There were the first responders who aided the people who were directly affected by the bombings, but many of the folks who were affected were from out of town and they were staying at these hotels. They were exhausted, they were traumatized, and it was the hotel workers who comforted them, fed them, who made sure they had clean, safe rooms to say in.”

This article was originally posted on the AFL-CIO on April 22, 2013. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Kenneth Quinnell is a long-time blogger, campaign staffer and political activist whose writings have appeared on AFL-CIO, Daily Kos, Alternet, the Guardian Online, Media Matters for America, Think Progress, Campaign for America’s Future and elsewhere.


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Low-Wage Workers Hit Hardest by Workplace Injuries, Illnesses

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It’s a double whammy for low-wage workers when they get hurt or fall ill on the job.

First, they lose pay because the vast majority (more than 80%) of low-wage workers do not have any paid sick leave to take time off to recover. Second, not only does the pay check shrink, but because of inadequate workers’ compensation laws, they must shoulder a bigger portion of their health care costs with those smaller paychecks. That means workers and their communities must bear a larger share of the $39 billion (in 2010) that workplace injuries and illnesses cost the nation.  

A new policy brief, “Mom’s Off Work ’Cause She Got Hurt: The Economic Impact of Workplace Injuries and Illnesses in the U.S.’s Growing Low-Wage Workforce,” examines the growing problem.  

Using information from a study, by University of California, Davis, economist J. Paul Leigh, on the number and cost of injuries and illnesses among low-wage workers, Celeste Monforton, a professorial lecturer in environmental and occupational health at George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services (SPHHS), and SPHHS researcher Liz Borkowski explore how workplace injuries and illnesses impact the lives of low-wage workers. Says Monforton:

Workers earning the lowest wages are the least likely to have paid sick leave, so missing work to recuperate from a work-related injury or illness often means smaller paychecks. For the millions of Americans living paycheck to paycheck, a few missed shifts can leave families struggling to pay rent and buy groceries.

Leigh’s study classifies about 31 million people—22% of the U.S. workforce—in 65 occupations for which the median wage is below $11.19 per hour as low-wage workers. The janitors, housecleaners, restaurant workers and others earning that wage full-time will bring home just $22,350 per year—an amount that means a family of four must subsist at the poverty line

In 2010, 596 low-wage workers suffered fatal on-the-job injuries and 12,415 died from occupational ailments, including certain kinds of cancer. Another 1.6 million suffered from non-fatal injuries, and 87,857 developed non-fatal occupational health problems such as asthma. The costs of the 1.73 million injuries and illness amounted to $15 billion for medical care and another $24 billion for lost productivity—the cost when injured or sick workers cannot perform their jobs or daily household duties.

But as Monforton and Borkowski point out, workers’ compensation insurance either does not apply or fails to cover many of these costs, which can bankrupt families living on the margin. In some cases, employers do not have to offer this kind of insurance to employees.

And even workers who do have the coverage often get an unexpected surprise after an on-the-job injury or illness: Insurers generally do not have to provide wage replacement until the worker has lost between three and seven consecutive shifts. And workers at the low end of the wage scale are often discouraged from reporting on-the-job injuries as work-related—which leaves them with no insurance benefits at all.

According to Leigh, insurers cover less than one-fourth of the costs of occupational injuries and illnesses. The rest falls on workers’ families, non-workers’ compensation health insurers and taxpayer-funded programs like Medicaid.

When low-wage workers miss even a few days of pay while recovering from an occupational injury or illness, the effects spread quickly,” says Borkowski.

They will usually have to cut back on their spending right away, which affects the local economy. And families with children might skip meals or cut back on the heat, money-saving tactics that can put vulnerable family members such as children at risk of developmental delays and poor performance in school.

The authors call on policymakers to address this public health problem more forcefully by improving workplace safety and strengthening the safety net to reduce the negative impacts caused by the injuries and illnesses that still occur. Says Monforton:

On average, more than 4,000 workers are injured on the job each day. If we make workplaces safer, we not only stop losing billions of dollars each year, but we also could reduce the pain and suffering and financial impact on thousands of low-wage, hard-working Americans and their families.

The reports are posted here: http://defendingscience.org/low-wage-workers.

This article was originally posted on AFL-CIO NOW on December 14, 2012. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Mike Hall is is a a former West Virginia newspaper reporter, staff writer for the United Mine Workers Journal and managing editor of the Seafarers Log. He came to the AFL- CIO in 1989 and has written for several federation publications, focusing on legislation and politics, especially grassroots mobilization and workplace safety. When his collar was “still blue,” he carried union cards from the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers, American Flint Glass Workers and Teamsters for jobs in a chemical plant, a mining equipment manufacturing plant and a warehouse.


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