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Backed by Nail Salon Owners, a New York Legislator Now Fights Reforms
Assemblyman Ron Kim, left of center, and Sangho Lee, president of the Korean American Nail Salon Association, at lectern, at a news conference in May. Credit Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times
In a packed hall in the Bronx a few months ago, Ron Kim, a New York State assemblyman, stood clutching a ceremonial pen in his left hand, the other extended into the crowd as labor advocates, politicians and immigrant rights workers thronged to shake it. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo had just used the pen to sign into law a bill protecting nail salon workers from labor abuses and potentially dangerous chemicals. It was a measure that Mr. Kim, who represents the mostly Asian enclave of Flushing, Queens, had spent a painstaking summer helping to craft.
Less than a month later, however, Mr. Kim, a Democrat, began to publicly question the law — particularly a provision designed to protect workers from wage fraud. He soon became one of the statute’s most vociferous critics.
As it turns out, while Mr. Kim’s position on the law was evolving, nail salon owners, previously a largely disconnected group, were rapidly organizing. They started a sophisticated effort to fight the law. And, behind the scenes, they funneled tens of thousands of dollars in political donations to Mr. Kim.
Other elected officials and civic groups have expressed concerns about the statute, which passed the State Legislature after The New York Times published a two-part series in May on abuses in the industry. They argued the law was discriminatory and overly burdensome on immigrant-run businesses, and contended it unfairly lumped responsible nail salon owners in with those who are mistreating workers.
But Mr. Kim came to play a critical role in the owners’ battle, helping them strategize and connecting them to a lobbying firm where he used to work. Among the firm’s first tasks was to help with public relations around a lawsuit filed by the owners challenging the legality of portions of the law.
There is clearly a political upside in the nail salon fight for Mr. Kim, who in interviews covered by the Korean-language press has alluded to his hope that the issue will help mobilize Asian-American voters and in that way strengthen his position in the Assembly. More tangibly, Mr. Kim’s campaign coffers are swelling.
At a fund-raiser for Mr. Kim in July, co-hosted by the president of the Korean American Nail Salon Association, Sangho Lee, nail salon owners donated nearly $25,000, according to Korean-language newspaper articles and campaign finance records. Since then, the industry has raised even more money for the assemblyman, according to Mr. Lee — about $60,000 in total. Mr. Kim’s financial involvement with the nail salon industry, and the group’s hiring of professional lobbyists, was reported by Crain’s New York last month.
A few days after the fund-raiser, Mr. Kim stood on the dais at the bill signing, thanking the governor for letting him take the lead on the nail salon law. In articles in Korean-language newspapers around that time, Mr. Kim said he had successfully worked to soften some of the bill’s more stringent measures and expressed pride in what he had accomplished.
But in the weeks after the signing, Mr. Kim’s comments turned negative, focusing on the requirement that nail salon owners buy a wage bond, a form of insurance meant to ensure that workers who successfully sue for wage theft are paid. Mr. Kim has challenged the availability of the bonds, their price and how quickly salons were required to obtain one.
Now, his main complaint has become that nail salon owners are being unfairly singled out. He said he had always believed the wage bonds would be required not just for nail salons, but all “appearance enhancement” businesses, a broader category that includes hair dressers, waxing parlors and others. His argument mirrors one detailed in a lawsuit filed in September by the Korean American Nail Salon Association and a newly formed group, the Chinese Nail Salon Association of East America.
“I genuinely did not think they were applying it to only nail salons,” Mr. Kim said in an interview.
State officials, however, said they were puzzled by Mr. Kim’s current stance.
“I am confused that he is confused,” said Alphonso B. David, the chief counsel for the governor, a Democrat.
Mr. David said the government was clear throughout the process that the wage bond requirement would apply only to nail salons. “Anyone who suggests we have been otherwise has either been blind to the materials we have issued, or is actively disingenuous,” he said.
Mr. David raised questions about Mr. Kim’s motivations: “We advanced a piece of legislation that we think is going to protect workers that have been historically abused and exploited — we, including Mr. Kim. He was supportive up until recently. Why is it that view has changed?”
In mid-September, Mr. Kim made a point of returning a $5,000 donation from the Korean nail association, as well as $2,000 given to him by the Chinese nail association.
“I didn’t want to give any impression to anybody that I did this because they were at one point donating to my campaign,” Mr. Kim said, “even though I don’t think that there was anything illegal in what that was.”
But he has kept money given to him individually by salon owners. Campaign finance records show that at least $17,000 in contributions that appear to be from the July fund-raiser came from salon owners, including present and past leaders of the Korean nail salon association. The donations that have come in since then are not yet publicly available. In an interview, Mr. Kim said he did not know the affiliations of the industry donors, even though several donations in July were from salons themselves, and labeled in records, in one example, as “Think Pink Nails I Inc.” In response to questions, Mr. Kim said that his staff would be looking into whether more money should be returned.
On the same day Mr. Kim returned the Chinese and Korean trade associations’ donations, the organizations hired the Parkside Group, a lobbying firm where Mr. Kim worked in 2012. The move was made at the assemblyman’s recommendation, according to Donald Yu, the director of the Korean nail salon association: “He said that in order to do the lawsuit, you also need to hire a P.R. firm to do press conferences and to get the articles into newspapers and radio and TV.”
In an interview, the assemblyman said hiring Parkside was just one of a number of recommendations he had made to the owners’ group, and that he frequently makes recommendations to constituents.
As the nail salon groups have ramped up their campaign against the new regulations, the organizations’ stature has grown, too. The Korean nail association had previously relied mainly upon modest dues, but now, almost every day, checks are arriving at its battered upper-story office in Flushing, adding tens of thousands of dollars to its war chest, its leaders said.
At least two other groups of nail salon owners have coalesced, organizing largely through WeChat, a popular messaging app. One, calling itself U.S. Nail Salons Management Center Inc., urged Chinese-owned shops around the city to close in protest of the new regulations on Aug. 25.
Joseph Lin, a real estate agent and community activist who is not affiliated with the industry, joined that group, and rallied another spinoff group. He said he was inspired to join the fray after walking past a nail salon that had shut in protest over Labor Day weekend and seeing a flier on its window.
Mr. Lin said he saw a chance for Chinese immigrants in the city to find their political voice. He helped lead nail salon protests in September at City Hall and several demonstrations in front of the New York Times Building. He has also been using the protests as a vehicle to encourage Chinese-Americans, in the nail salon industry and outside it, to register to vote. In an interview, Mr. Lin pointed to the fact that in a recent protest, which drew several hundred participants, many were not involved in the nail salon industry at all. The fight, he said, is now about so much more than nail salons.
As for Mr. Kim, his battle against the law has helped raise his profile, in particular among the city’s tightly knit community of Korean small-business owners, a group from which, he likes to point out at rallies and meetings, he too hails. His family owned a nail salon, among other businesses.
In recent weeks, he has been distributing fliers criticizing the wage bond, and calling for owners to report to him any trouble with the special information hotlines the government has set up. He is now drafting fixes to the law, which he says will reduce the burden on law-abiding nail businesses. Good and reputable shops, Mr. Kim said, are paying the price for the behavior of unscrupulous business owners. Forcing everyone to buy the insurance, he believes, is unfair in the absence of data from the government on how widespread the labor abuses are, or whether nail salons are any worse than other businesses.
Dick Dadey, the executive director of the Citizens Union, a government watchdog organization, said it was not unusual to tweak laws, but he was troubled by the timing of Mr. Kim’s push.
“Corrections are always needed when enacting public policy,” he said, “but it just doesn’t look right that this new bill is coming on the heels of strong financial support from the nail salon owners.”
from link: www.nytimes.com
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