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Reports of widespread exploitation of nail salon workers prompted what was called a day of action in New York City today - hundreds of volunteers and city officials fanned-out across the five boroughs, handing-out literature to manicurists and salon owners. The campaign is aimed at protecting the rights of salon workers, as NPR's Joel Rose reports.
JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: The goal is ambitious - to visit between 800 and a thousand nail salons across New York City in a single day, one salon at a time.
NISHA AGARWAL: Hello. I'm Nisha.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: OK.
ROSE PIERRE-LOUIS: I'm Rose. How are you?
ROSE: Nisha Agarwal is New York's commissioner of Immigrant Affairs and Rose Pierre-Louis heads the Office to Combat Domestic Violence. They're going door-to-door at nail salons. At each one, they drop-off an information packet that explains the rights of nail salon workers about wages, sick leave and exposure to harsh chemicals, in six different languages.
AGARWAL: We have some information we wanted to share for salon owners and managers.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Thank you so much.
ROSE: This is not a sting operation. It's more of an education campaign. Many nail salon workers are recent immigrants who don't speak much English. And that can make them vulnerable, says immigration commissioner Nisha Agarwal.
AGARWAL: It's the lack of information, the fear around immigration status, the what if, you know, if I do speak up, will I get reported to immigration? That is a constant worry that is hanging over these workers', and it's unfortunate because I think that can make them subject to potential exploitation.
ROSE: Exploitation of nail salon workers is widespread, according to an investigation by The New York Times. They found that manicurists are sometimes paid just a few dollars a day and exposed to harsh chemicals that can have lasting health effects. Those stories prompted New York state to quickly issue new regulations for nail salons, while the city is taking a more personal approach, says Commissioner Rose Pierre-Louis.
PIERRE-LOUIS: You get a good response when you do that sort of person-to-person, high touch kind of approach to reaching to people. As you just saw, they just came out to get more information. That's exactly the kind of reaction we want.
ROSE: As she was speaking, two manicurists emerged from a nearby nail salon to pick up flyers. The reception from the salon managers we visited was polite but cool. None of them wanted to talk, except for Nicole Kim (ph) at Nails and More in Chelsea. Kim knows there are bad actors, but she says her salon follows the rules.
NICOLE KIM: So some really bad people, they're around there, so I don't care about that.
ROSE: The small salon was packed today. But some women say they're rethinking where they get their nails done.
CLAIRE CORRIGAN: It confirmed what I always suspected (laughter).
ROSE: Claire Corrigan (ph) lives in Long Beach, Long Island. Corrigan says her town is full of nail salons offering amazingly low prices. Now she knows why those prices are so low.
CORRIGAN: I always tipped well just so I could feel better about myself, so I tipped the woman that would do my nails. But after that, I will not go into those salons anymore. I will pay more money.
ROSE: As long, Corrigan says, as the people doing her nails are getting paid a decent wage. Joel Rose, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.