Few recent investigative articles have landed with the sledgehammer force of the New York Times’ two-part exposé in May about working conditions at nail salons across New York City and the state. Within hours of the first article’s publication, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo ordered an investigation of the industry and later signed a law providing greater protections for workers.
But the stories’ conclusions — including “rampant” wage theft and exploitation of the mostly immigrant workforce — have been called into question by an unusually placed critic: a former New York Times journalist who co-owns two salons in Manhattan.
Writing in the New York Review of Books on Saturday, Richard Bernstein blasted Sarah Maslin Nir’s portrait of Dickensian conditions in the salon business, a series that some journalists have suggested could be an early contender for a Pulitzer Prize.
“This depiction of the business didn’t correspond with what we have experienced [as salon owners] over the past 12 years,” wrote Bernstein, a former Times foreign correspondent and China bureau chief for Time magazine. “But far more troubling, as we discovered when we began to look into the story’s claims and check its sources, was the flimsy and sometimes wholly inaccurate information on which those sweeping conclusions were based.”
Bernstein didn’t take issue with the contention that some workers are abused; he instead questioned how widespread it is. He challenged the Times’ conclusion that there is “rampant exploitation” of “a vast majority” of the tens of thousands of manicurists and other salon workers, and that abuse can be found, as the Times put it, in “almost any salon” in the state.
He accused the paper of drawing broad conclusions based on “a pool of mostly undocumented, untrained, or unlicensed workers . . . ignoring clear evidence that tens of thousands of salon workers do not fall into this category.”
Times’ editors began a vigorous defense of the series on social media Saturday. In an e-mail exchange Sunday morning, Times executive editor Dean Baquet said, “This was a great piece of journalism and Richard is speaking for the industry. I don’t think he should be treated as a journalist taking down a story on this one.”
Times Metro editor Wendell Jamieson e-mailed: “The story is rock rock rock solid.”
But Times deputy Metro editor Michael Luo, who edited Nir’s articles, struck a somewhat softer tone in an interview Sunday. “Could we have done more to have acknowledged that there are good actors in the industry? Yes, theoretically we could have. But I don’t want to back away from the findings of the story that the vast majority of workers are not paid the proper wage.”
The first story in the Times series described manicurists being paid below minimum wage and sometimes no wages at all by employers who preyed on their uncertain immigration status. Nir based her findings on interviews with more than 150 workers and owners, in four languages, plus a review of help-wanted ads, state records and lawsuits filed by workers.
But Bernstein, who co-owns salons with his wife and sister-in-law, took issue with the article’s claim that Chinese-language papers in New York are “rife” with ads that offer salon positions for as little as $10 per day. Bernstein and his wife, who both speak Chinese, said they reviewed every ad for manicurists in one Chinese-language newspaper, the World Journal, for three months prior to the story’s publication. “We found not a single one fitting the description of the ads that the Times asserts the papers to be full of.”
Instead, he wrote, he found ads offering from $70 to $120 a day, plus tips and commissions and free transportation from the Chinatown section of Flushing in Queens. (Bernstein did not respond to requests for comment Sunday).
As a follow-up, Bernstein’s wife posed as a job applicant and asked salon owners about starting wages. The lowest salary she found was $70 a day, plus tips and commissions, he wrote. He concluded, “The classified ads, clearly and unambiguously, reveal the opposite of what the Times claims they do.”
Nir said Sunday that she found “illegally low wagesadvertised in plain sight” over the course of her 13-month investigation. “ ‘Rife’ is a subjective word. “It doesn’t have a numerical value. But I saw [such ads] all the time and I would use that word again.”
She added, “When I set out to do this story, I didn’t set out to find the most exploited and abused people. I went to the bus stop and asked people at random to tell my their story. I didn’t select for it. [Exploitation] was, and is, the landscape of this industry.”
Bernstein also took exception to the Times’ assertion that state inspections of salons is lax, citing 5,174 inspections of male and female “appearance enhancement” businesses by the New York Department of State between May 2014 and 2015. The inspections resulted in 78 fines for operating without a license, figures he said the Times did not include in its stories.
But Luo said the state’s Department of Labor is the relevant agency when it comes to wage issues and its records indicated that salon inspections have been rare.
He said the Times would offer a detailed rebuttal to Bernstein on Monday.