Occupational Health News Roundup

At The New York Times, writers Kim Barker and Russ Buettner report on the labor investigations being conducted at nail salons throughout New York in the wake of a 2015 New York Times article that exposed widespread wage and labor abuses. They report that all but a dozen of the 230 salons whose investigations were closed last year were found violating at least one labor law. More than 40 percent of the salons were violating wage laws. Barker and Buettner write:

But the details of the state inspections are perhaps most revealing about just how challenging it is to regulate a largely immigrant-run industry in which almost everything is done off the books and employers are often unfamiliar with the intricacies of state labor laws.

About 85 percent of the salons failed to maintain adequate payroll records, a violation of state law, making it by far the most common citation, according to The Times’s review. Without records, investigators had to accept whatever employees told them they were paid, usually in front of their bosses. Many workers fear retaliation if they are honest about illegal wages, manicurists and labor officials said. Investigators later found that one owner fired a worker who spoke to an investigator.

The Times article interviewed a number of salon owners, some of whom report difficulty understanding state labor laws. For example, they report that in two-dozen cases, salons paid wages above minimum wage, but still broke labor law by paying daily or weekly rates. Barker and Buettner write:

Labor investigators documented many of the abuses that were highlighted in The Times’s articles. But workers’ fears in speaking with inspectors, along with the fact that the state efforts came at a time of such intense scrutiny of the industry, complicate direct comparisons of the scope of the problems found by the state and by The Times. Among the more than 100 manicurists interviewed by The Times, for example, only about a quarter said they were paid an amount that was the equivalent of minimum wage.

The inspection records reveal another reality: Many owners, even some of those making efforts to pay decent wages, simply failed to grasp the technical details of state labor laws. Many salon owners, for example, seemed unaware that they must pay one full hour of bonus wages when an employee’s shift spans more than 10 hours.

To read the full investigation, visit The New York Times.

In other news:

Reuters: Megan Twohey, Mica Rosenberg and Ryan McNeill investigate labor brokers — middlemen hired by companies to recruit foreign laborers for temporary jobs in the U.S. The reporters examined more than 200 civil and criminal cases filed in federal court that allege a variety of abuses by labor brokers, from wage theft to human trafficking. They write: “The cases illustrate how the absence of government oversight has allegedly enabled some brokers to exploit workers – and how intermediaries can insulate U.S. companies, providing them plausible deniability about the circumstances under which workers were recruited.” The reporters investigate the case of Nestor Molina, who allegedly lied to potential workers with the promise of permanent U.S. residency, while charging vulnerable workers millions in illegal recruitment fees.

NPR: Howard Berkes reports that an Oklahoma law that lets employers opt out of the workers’ compensation system has been declared unconstitutional by state regulators. The state’s Workers’ Compensation Commission described plans that some employers had adopted as an alternative to traditional workers’ comp as "a water mirage on the highway that disappears upon closer inspection." The decision, which is expected to be appealed, stems from the case of a Dillard’s department store worker who was injured lifting boxes and later denied benefits. The worker’s lawyer argued that the “injury would have been covered under the state's workers' comp law and that the rejection by Dillard's constitutes disparate treatment of injured workers,” Berkes reported. Last year, Berkes teamed up with Michael Grabell at ProPublica to author this investigation into the dismantling of the workers’ compensation system.

Houston Chronicle: Matt Dempsey reports that newly proposed chemical safety rules from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency wouldn’t have done much to prevent the explosion at the West Fertilizer Company in West, Texas, three years ago. The finding is somewhat disappointing as the proposed rules are in response to a presidential executive order issued in the aftermath of the West explosion. The EPA’s new rules will require companies to conduct annual safety drills, be subject to third-party audits and improve emergency response. Dempsey reports: “The (Risk Management Plan) regulations will only require companies in three industries – paper, coal and petroleum and chemical manufacturing – to assess whether safer technologies and chemicals are feasible. It doesn't force those companies to make changes. It also doesn't expand the types of facilities covered by (the Risk Management Plan).”

Huffington Post: Dave Jamieson reports that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission will pursue its first lawsuits based on a worker’s sexual orientation. The two lawsuits involve a man employed at a Pennsylvania medical center and a women employed at a Maryland pallet manufacturer. In both cases, the workers endured anti-gay taunts and harassment. The commission has never before filed suit on behalf of a gay worker. Noting that the commission had previously determined that sexual orientation discrimination is inherently discrimination based on sex,  Jamieson reports: “In an amicus brief it filed in a separate case last month, the (commission) argued that ‘sexual orientation discrimination necessarily involves sex stereotyping.’ In such cases, the agency wrote, workers are treated differently ‘because their orientation does not conform to heterosexually defined gender norms.’”

Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for nearly 15 years.

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