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Nail Salons: A Reply to the ‘Times’

On July 25, the NYR Daily published a post by Richard Bernstein on the first part of a New York Times investigation into workplace conditions at New York City nail salons, which Bernstein argued was a “misleading depiction of the nail salon business as a whole.” The editors of the Times have published a letter responding to Bernstein’s post. Richard Bernstein replies below.
—The Editors

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Flickr/bettyx1138

I have some points of agreement with the Times editors’ letter to The New York Review. The Times team worked prodigiously hard on the nail salon exposé and the investigation made some important findings. Indeed, contrary to the assertion in the editors’ rejoinder, I never “declared” that the abuses described in the lead article of the Times series “do not exist.” What I wrote, about Jing Ren, the apparently unlicensed, undocumented worker profiled in the story, was, “Much of the account Ms. Ren gives the Times is appalling and the treatment she received is reprehensible,” even as I praised the paper for bringing to light the wage theft and other forms of mistreatment that some salons practice on such workers.

But the Times article’s conclusions went well beyond what those findings showed. It used almost lurid language to describe the “rampant exploitation of those who toil in the industry,” noting that the “vast majority” of salon workers are paid illegally low wages or not at all. The question I posed about this central assertion in the story, which has yet to be taken up by the paper’s senior editors, was the reality, according to the New York Department of State, that there are more than 30,000 licensed salon workers, and that there is a large body of evidence, including some provided in the Times response to my critique, showing that their salaries are at competitive, market, legal rates.

Most important here is the matter of the classified ads in the Asian-language papers. It was the Times itself that cited these ads as an important indicator of the shockingly pervasive condition of salon workers as a whole. I did, it is true, raise some doubt about whether Sarah Maslin Nir, the writer of the Times investigation, had actually seen a prominent item in it, an ad that offered a salary of $10 a day. The Times didn’t reproduce the ad in its long article, or even say when it appeared, or quote from what it actually said. It was in part to clarify that point that I emailed several Times editors, and attempted, unsuccessfully, to contact Ms. Nir by phone and in a letter I wrote to her at the Times, which was returned undelivered. My last such attempt was on June 16, when I emailed Wendell Jamieson, the Metro editor. “I wanted to ask if you can tell me what newspapers you reviewed and what dates? And can you cite a specific salary that you or one of your reporters has actually seen that corresponds to the description printed in the paper?” I got no response.

Now, finally, nearly three months after I made my first inquiries, the Times editors have supplied the information I was seeking. The ad appeared three times in April 2014, more than twelve months before the Times story ran. And it turns out to be quite different from the way it was described by the paper. The ad indeed offered $10 a day salaries to what it called xue-tu in Chinese, apprentices or trainees. But now for the first time we learn that that was a secondary element in the ad. The primary element, signaled in the ad’s headline, was an offer of jobs for manicurists paying $75 a day—the figure “$75” printed in large type—an important fact that was somehow omitted in the original exposé.

Let’s remember what the Times reported on this matter of ads. “Asian-language newspapers,” it asserted, “are rife with classified ads listing manicurist jobs paying so little the daily wage can at first glance appear to be a typo.” In their rejoinder, the Times editors have not challenged my finding that no such ads could be found in 2015 in any of the Asian-language newspapers (note the plural) that its story declared to be “rife” with them. Perhaps more recent such ads exist, and the Times and I, combing through thousands of classifieds, have missed them. But they must be rare.

Given this, at the very least, you’d think the Times editors would acknowledge that the word “rife” was an inaccurate choice, but they insist that their findings are correct. (Margaret Sullivan, the Times’s public editor, wrote separately that it “may have been an overstatement.”) And yet, the editors also for the first time acknowledge that the few ads from 2014 they have now produced that offer illegally low pay are for apprentices or trainees, not for regular workers. In such a way they concede one of the main points of my critique, which is that pay for regular, licensed manicurists is far higher—around the $75 a day indicated in that ad of April 2014 and that was incompletely described. ($75 a day for a ten-hour day would be above minimum-wage requirements for workers who also receive tips.)

The Times editors deal with this matter by arguing that apprentices do the same work as regular employees. Maybe they do in some salons, and if they are exploited in this way, that should brought to light. But the important question, for the conclusions the Times has drawn about the industry, is not the work the apprentices do, but whether they make up the “vast majority,” as the Times alleged, of salon workers.

And here, the Times’s editors do not deal with the second of the main points I made in my critique, that the experience of the salon worker featured in the story, the twenty-year-old recent immigrant from China, Jing Ren, was not representative of the industry. It is easy to understand how Ms. Nir and her colleagues were moved by the experience that Ms. Ren described—her anxieties, her fear that things will never change, her dreadful living conditions, and, of course, her illegally low pay. They heard other stories from other workers along the same lines, and no doubt they were moved by them also, and they were motivated by the admirable desire to give these powerless and misused people a voice.

If only that was all that they did, the story would have been excellent. But they go on to extrapolate sweeping and unsubstantiated conclusions from what was, by their own description, a non-random sample. Indeed, Mr. Baquet and his colleagues now confirm that many of Ms. Nir’s interview subjects came from that pickup spot in Queens where she found Ms. Ren, a spot where there seems to be a high concentration of undocumented, unlicensed workers. The editors have no rejoinder to my argument that seemingly not a single licensed worker with a few years experience is portrayed in its exposé. The editors concede that I “made a valid point about certain positives in the industry that could have been amplified,” though they do not take up the interview, which I cite in my critique, from a long-term worker from China that appeared on The New York Times’s Sinosphere blog that portrays a far happier picture of a salon worker’s lot than any we get in the lengthy Times article.

That there are exploited workers in the salon business, as the Times reported, and as I acknowledged in my critique, is certainly to be deplored. It is illegal to hire unlicensed manicurists in New York and it is right for those that do to be found out and fined, or shut down—as the Times response points out, a new task force has issued many citations for violations, though not all of these are for wage violations; my wife’s store was inspected in the wake of the Cuomo order and a violation was issued—for failing to store nail polish containers on a metal shelf. But the Times claims that such exploitation can “readily be found” by walking into “the prim confines of just about any salon.” To defend this finding, the editors, like the exposé, do not mention that there are tens of thousands of regular salon workers who do not fall into this category. To date, nobody speaking for the Times has taken account of that fact, though it crucially challenges the overall conclusions the paper has drawn, which do injury to the many salons that struggle to observe the law and to treat their workers well.

Still, there is a happy outcome to the Times investigation and the debate surrounding it. Attention is being given to young women who are being underpaid and who have no resources to defend themselves against mistreatment, and this, as I might have made clearer in my critique, we can all agree is a good thing.