For nearly a year, Mr. Lee spent 12 hours a day, seven days a week, scrubbing feet and polishing fingernails at a local salon. But Lee, a recent Korean immigrant who now lives in Flushing, earned just $85 per day, with no set breaks, health insurance or overtime.
Worse, said Lee, the salon owner constantly threatened to fire him because Lee was undocumented and the owner feared an audit. In March 2005, Lee lost his job—and quickly took action.
Lee had read a newspaper story about the Korean Workers Project, a collaboration between the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF) and the Young Korean American Service and Education Center (YKASEC). With their help, he won a $17,500 settlement, the first award of its kind for a Korean nail salon worker.
“From the beginning, the money isn’t the thing I wanted,” said Lee, 42, through a translator. “I wanted my rights back.”
Steven Choi, the AALDEF attorney who represented Lee, has helped secure settlements for day laborers, grocery workers and restaurant staff, but hopes this case will help crack open the shadowy world of nail salons. “It’s definitely an industry where we are seeking to expand,” he said.
YKASEC program associate Kathy Chae was quick to point out that the salon, which cannot be named under conditions of the settlement, was not a small operation. “We don’t target mom and pop stores,” she said.
She hopes Lee’s case will encourage other workers to seek help, but that’s not her ultimate goal. “We also wish that more employers hear about this and abide by the law,” she said.
Not his real name.