(CNN) — A blockbuster investigation in The New York Times has exposed the harrowing, illegal conditions prevalent in nail salons in and around New York City — including cases of illegal stealing of tips, failure to pay overtime or minimum wage and forced exposure to toxic fumes and chemicals.
That, in turn, has triggered an emergency crackdown on the industry by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, complete with a plan to inspect every nail salon in New York and a promise to fine or close shops that don’t immediately clean up their act.
While Cuomo’s intervention is a welcome step in the right direction, it underscores the reality that safeguarding the rights and working conditions of millions of low-wage workers is too big of a job for any one governor — or even a group of governors, even yours — to tackle without the backing of the federal government.
The situation of workers in New York City’s estimated 2,000 nail salons has been a scandal hiding in plain sight. As the Times investigation showed, many shop owners viciously exploit young women from Asia and Latin America, many of them undocumented immigrants, by requiring them to work 10- and 12-hour days for weeks as unpaid apprentices, after which they might earn as little as $30 a day plus tips.
Some salon owners seize their employees’ tips, deny workers a place for meal breaks, ride herd on workers for breaking minor rules — all enforced by the use of video surveillance, fines and even physical abuse. Those practices violate a slew of laws that mandate a minimum wage, extra pay for overtime and meal breaks.
The Times exposé focused on nail shops, but it could have been written about any number of low-wage workplaces across the country. Car wash employees in New York recently took to the streets, filed a lawsuit and eventually unionized to protest the stealing of tips and lack of minimum wage or overtime pay. Similar violations of wage laws have been documented at car washes in Chicago and in Los Angeles.
Restaurants — another workplace dependent on low-wage workers and cash transactions — turn out to be so rife with wage violations that California authorities have launched crackdowns; ditto for Colorado and Idaho. Boston has gone so far as to deny permits to restaurants that steal employees’ tips and pay.
Construction sites may be havens of wage theft. Many hotels have the same problem. Although the exact extent of wage theft and underpayment nationwide isn’t recorded in any one place, “survey evidence suggests that wage theft is widespread and costs workers billions of dollars a year,” says a September report by the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington-based think tank, citing a study of conditions in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago.
“The total annual wage theft from front-line workers in low-wage industries in the three cities approached $3 billion,” the institute said. “If these findings in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles are generalizable to the rest of the U.S. low-wage workforce of 30 million, wage theft is costing workers more than $50 billion a year.”
The Wage and Hour Division of the federal Department of Labor, which tracks wage violations, found last year that more than 270,000 workers nationwide were owed $240 million.
The phenomenon extends well beyond big cities. The Economic Policy Institute surveyed federal and local agencies that regulate wage conditions and found that “state departments of labor in 44 states recovered $172 million; state attorneys general in 45 states recovered $14 million; and private attorneys recovered $467 million in wage and hour class action lawsuits.”
No single city or state can individually expect to make serious headway in ending a problem taking place in nearly half the country; what’s needed is a federal commitment to enforcing workplace conditions. The Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division has 200 offices nationwide — a number that only sounds impressive until you consider the millions of workplaces where violations might take place. (Nationwide, for example, there are 17,000 nail salons.)
This is a case where the simplest and best solution is an old one: labor unions. When workers collectively negotiate wages, hours and other conditions — and keep a permanent watch for violations — abuses get caught earlier and are resolved through a process that is faster and less costly than launching a regulatory crackdown or filing lawsuits.
This happens to be an election season, so every candidate for the presidency should put up their best ideas — whether it’s supporting unions, tougher regulation or some other method — to make sure our workplaces are run with fairness and according to law.
Sweatshops have no place in 21st-century America.
Errol Louis is the host of “Inside City Hall,” a nightly political show on NY1, a New York all-news channel. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.