On Monday, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced emergency protections for the state's nail salon workers, just days after two New York Times reports detailed widespread wage theft and health risks. The stories, by reporter Sarah Maslin Nir, illuminated just how vulnerable these workers are: Often recent immigrants, with low English fluency and few marketable skills, they're essentially indentured to nail salons that take few measures to shield them from exposure to toxic chemicals used in manicures and pedicures.
But nail salons aren't the only workplaces with few rules and little oversight. Mary Vogel, executive director of the National Council on Occupational Safety and Health, and Charlene Obernauer, executive director of the organization's New York chapter, pointed out a few other examples of occupations where workers experience similar vulnerabilities.
As an extensive Pro Publica investigation and National Employment Law Project report last year showed that workers employed by staffing agencies -- but who may work for years for a single company, like a big box retailer -- often are assigned the most dangerous jobs or lose wages and benefits. In particular, contracted construction workers, many of them undocumented Latino immigrants, have been dying on the job more frequently in recent years. The Occupational Health and Safety Administration has an initiative to make employers aware of their obligations, and some states are starting to make them liable for the labor violations of their subcontractors, but the industry remains broadly unregulated.
Hydraulic fracturing has grown rapidly in the United States, but regulation of its associated hazards — not to mention inspections of the thousands of rig sites around the country — haven’t kept up say, safety experts say. That’s led to spiking numbers of fatalities as well as injuries like burns, exposure to volatile organic compounds, and crushed limbs, overwhelming local health budgets. Unlike coal mining, fracking for natural gas isn’t specifically regulated by a federal agency like the Mine Safety and Health Administration, and OSHA’s resources have been too limited to fully address the problems.
Farm work is among the lowest-paid occupations in the country, and also has been exempted from many workplace protections that apply to everybody else. Only a few states give farm workers the right to overtime pay, for example, and they don't have the right to organize unions or bargain collectively with employers. They're allowed to work at as young as 14 -- with even younger workers sometimes found in tobacco fields -- and are often exposed to pesticides. And the vulnerabilities extend forward through the supply chain, especially at meatpacking plants where production lines run at speeds that can cause carpal tunnel and sliced fingers.
Workers who serve families or the elderly in their homes have historically been treated as something less than fully fledged employees. Home health aides were only recently granted the right to earn the federal minimum wage and overtime pay. But even with those new protections, in-house maids often work without contracts or under the table entirely, leaving them without healthcare benefits or workers compensation.
People who work at car washes put in long hours with harsh cleaning chemicals, often without rest breaks or drinking water, and sometimes for employers that don't pay proper wages or benefits. That's especially true when they're expected to make money on tips. "In industries where tips are common, so too is wage theft and exploitation," says Obernauer, who also includes restaurant workers in that definition. Campaigns in New York and Los Angeles have organized thousands of "carwasheros," as they're called, to fight wage theft and push for legislation that would require more oversight of car washes, which can be unlicensed and difficult to sue if violations are discovered.