Two articles written in AsAmNews have drawn the ire of New York Assemblyperson Ron Kim, who in 2012 became the first Korean American ever elected in New York State. The articles questioned whether contributions from the nail salon industry to Kim’s campaign had caused him to “flip flop” on reforms to stop the exploitation of nail salon workers. Kim asked AsAmNews for an opportunity to respond.
Shirley Lew: Governor Cuomo issued an emergency order based on the New York Times reporter, Sarah Maslin Nir’s two-part report about the exploitation of nail salon workers in May 2015. (The public editor of The New York Times, Margaret Sullivan later said that Nir’s story “in places, the two-part investigation went too far in generalizing about an entire industry. Its findings, and the language used to express them, should have been dialed back—in some instances substantially.”) However, your reaction to the Nir’s report caused you to co-author a nail salon reform bill, which Cuomo signed in July 2015, but the part of that bill which required nail salon owners to purchase a wage bond (insurance that would be used to pay back wages to workers who can prove they were not paid minimum wage)is now a concern and you want that amended. Why should that not appear that you are turning against the bill that you supported?
Ron Kim: The governor issued the wage bond mandate without any law through his emergency powers in May 2015, a full month before we even had any type of legislation. The process began when he submitted his “program bill”, which is legislation proposed by the governor for consideration. I fought hard to become the main sponsor of his proposal in order to make sure all sides, including worker advocates and small business owners, had an equal voice. I managed to strike out almost 60% of his proposal, including his request to authorize his office to mandate wage bonds. In fact, I even fought to add an extra layer of vetting for any kind of insurance or bond product, and made sure that it had to be applied to the entire beauty enhancement industry – not just nail salons – to prevent discriminatory practices. Here’s a summary of what the governor proposed and the actual statute:
So if the law that was passed curtailed his ability to impose the wage bonds, how did he enforce it? By extending a “state of emergency” against nail salons for one year, giving him special unilateral powers; kind of like the President having unilateral emergency powers during war time. This executive action caused small businesses to sue the governor and file for an injunction, which was rejected by a state judge appointed by the governor.
In short, I continue to support the legislation I passed, and have never changed my stance. It’s my responsibility as a legislator to oversee the application of the law we actually agreed to. I strongly believe the governor is the one who flip-flopped in not following the statute he signed. Instead, he chose to use his executive privilege to enforce regulations in a manner not authorized by the final bill.
Shirley Lew: So Cuomo’s imposed wage bond now extends to beauty salons and others in the “appearance-enhancement” industries. You feel the wage bond is too heavy of a financial burden for many of these small businesses and that there has been unfair assessment on many of the businesses. According to a recent article in Slant, you said some businesses were forced to shut down because they can not afford to purchase a wage bond. If somone said to you now, “Cuomo is a big supporter of safe work conditions and small businesses.” How would you respond to that?
Ron Kim: There is no mention of “wage bonds” anywhere in the law. We stipulated two conditions for all new insurance products: They must apply to the entire beauty enhancement industry (35,000 plus businesses), and must be vetted properly and certified as “readily available in a competitive market” by the Dept. of Financial Services. We put this in to make sure the governor can’t just single out nail salons (4,000 stores) with a new product – especially one that redlines immigrants without credit history. He chose to do so unilaterally anyway.
We have endless emails and phone call recordings that document our research on wage bonds, and how unfit they are for small business industries. There’s even a public blog pointing to the problems regarding wage bonds:
Before I became more vocal and publicly denounced Governor Cuomo’s decision-making, I tried hard for almost 3 months to work with them in resolving these issues. Their response to me was, “Ron, it’s politically impossible for us to go back on wage bonds.” That’s when I realized I was being naive in thinking that they actually cared about real solutions. They only cared about politics and controlling the optics of public perception, even if it meant using false, damaging stereotypes of Asian small business owners as “bad people” trying to exploit workers and harm consumers for a quick buck.
Anyone who questioned them would be crushed by their team of media hawks, who worked around the clock to discredit any critics by planting negative stories of them.
Shirley Lew: What are your suggested revisions to the Governor? Does he agree? What has been the most recent dialogue you’ve had with the Governor on this?
Ron Kim: My suggestion has always been the same. Provide some real funding for programs that help workers, and hold the real culprits accountable – the manufacturers producing toxic nail products.
Here’s a letter that I sent directly to the governor at the very beginning of his task force and new rules in May 2015.
Instead of allocating anything to support workers or small business owners, his mandates (wage bonds and now ventilation systems) enrich big corporations at the expense of mom and pop store owners.
Here’s another Huffpost op-ed published in June 2015 (co authored with Chris Kui from AAFE), requesting training dollars for immigrant workers: http://m.huffpost.com/us/ entry/7493626
Shirley Lew: How have the Korean Nail Salon Association and the Chinese Nail Salon of East America been responding lately?
Ron Kim: They are beyond frustrated and angry because they feel voiceless and powerless. One recently told me they believed there will be tragic consequences for some of the many store owners forced to shut down, especially those who feel like it’s the end of the road. We read about immigrants committing suicide and always wonder at those moments why no one stepped in to support them. Well, I believe the governor still has a golden opportunity to be a hero.
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