By Robert Burns (Special to LouisianaVoice)
Forty years ago, actress Tippi Hedren offered a program for 20 Vietnamese women to learn the profession of being manicurists. The result was a complete revolution of the nail salon industry. The industry is now an $8 billion powerhouse which is dominated by Vietnamese operators. According to Nails, a publication devoted to the nail salon industry, 51 percent of nail salon operators nationwide are Vietnamese. Moreover, in Louisiana, despite the fact that Louisiana Cosmetology Board (LCB) Executive Director Steve Young said that the vast majority of nail salon operators are Vietnamese, his only explanation for why the LCB has no Vietnamese representation is that “it just has not reached that point.”
Vietnamese operators routinely undercut the competition’s price by 30-50 percent. They are recognized by Nails to have a stellar reputation for high-quality work, and they often support relatives in Vietnam. Numerous Vietnamese nail salon operators told Louisiana Voice that the LBC has targeted them for harassment and discriminatory inspections designed to drive them out of business. Their claims are detailed in a class action lawsuit filed by former U. S. Congressman Joseph Cao on February 6, 2014.
The suit alleges the LCB, its Executive Director, one of its attorneys, Celia Cangelosi (who is named personally as a defendant), and at least two of its inspectors, Sherrie Stockstill and Margaret Keller (also both named as defendants) have subjected the Vietnamese operators to being “harassed, intimidated, falsely imprisoned, and arbitrarily discriminated against.”
The lawsuit alleges that Thoa Thi Nguyen’s Exotic Nails was visited by LCB inspectors, including Stockstill, on Friday, July 19, 2013, at a time when the salon was “packed with patrons.” After several minutes of loitering and communicating facts of the salon’s operations, Stockstill shouted, “Everyone keep still. Don’t move!” The suit alleges Stockstill and the other inspector, despite producing no identifications or search warrant, began opening drawers, sorting through files, and, for two hours, and demanded that Nguyen not leave the premises. Nguyen contends that LBC’s actions resulted in a loss of confidence among some of her patrons who witnessed the scene and that her business has suffered from the episode.
The lawsuit details several other similar incidents including operators being subjected to repeated “inspections” and forcing some operators to sell their businesses to escape the relentless attacks. Meanwhile, the plaintiffs allege that non-Vietnamese operators are rarely, if ever, subjected to any inspection whatsoever. The lawsuit provides exhibits which show virtually all of the hearings for the LCB entail Vietnamese nail salon operators.
LCB meetings appear to be a vehicle for impeding competition and creating a self-generating source of revenue to provide fees for attorneys who serve under contract and to pay the board’s salaried staff. While the “inspectors” of the LBC earn average salaries of around $27,000, which perhaps explains their fundamental lack of knowledge or training regarding requirements to conduct searches, the LBC payroll approaches a staggering $1 million a year! That doesn’t even include the $200,000 or so per year it generates for its two contract attorneys: Cangelosi and Sherri Morris. Meanwhile, Vietnamese operators, who supply much of the funds through which they are harassed, are forced to literally beg the board for permission to work as evidenced by this applicant’s husband’s plea to the board after they moved from Texas and she sought a Louisiana license through reciprocity. Instead, the LCB proceeded to grill her on questions about her Vietnamese high school diploma and decide if the transcript translator should be “approved.”
Vietnamese citizens often immigrate to California and practice as manicurists before relocating to Louisiana, and one salon operator said he personally knows of 15 manicurists planning to relocate to Louisiana within weeks.
These operators were understandably concerned about the April agenda item on “California reciprocity.” At that meeting, Young sought to suspend California reciprocity based on its licensing authorities informing them they were “removing their seal from their documents.” It was also claimed that it was difficult getting anyone on the phone from California.
Louisiana Voice contacted California licensing authorities, and we had no difficulty getting them on the phone. Moreover, we were told that Young’s statement was false and that they’d experienced a temporary machine failure but that a new color-printed seal was being incorporated into their documents. Accordingly, Louisiana Voice made a public records request for whatever documentation Young referenced in the previous video clip indicating California was removing its seal. What we got was this this email which confirmed what California licensing authorities said to us. It’s not clear whether the LBC is going to accept the new color seal, but what is clear is that Young came across as being determined to suspend California reciprocity and slow the expansion of Vietnamese nail salon operators in Louisiana. Though it’s not clear what an acceptable seal now is, Young and the LBC agreed to back off of reciprocity suspension and merely return as “rejected” any California documents with “no seal.”
Another common complaint among Vietnamese operators is that the LCB itself can’t decide what is legal and what isn’t. Inconsistency appears to rule the day. One operator indicated he was licensed by an LCB official only to be informed by a subsequent inspector that he failed to have proper equipment nor adequate space for conducting his operations. Another operator appeared to suffer a similar plight as evidenced by this video clip from the April 2015 LCB meeting during which one LBC attorney, Sherrie Morris, had to explain to another LBC attorney, Cangelosi, as to the fact that nails can’t be done in an esthetic salon. Cangelosi says “somebody” told them they could but she says it was “not someone from the Board.” Louisiana Voice has been told by several operators that it was LCB officials who told them they could operate. Cangelosi even admits, “Somebody licensed them.” In yet another instance at the same meeting, the LCB demonstrated that its inability to provide guidance to its licensees on acceptable “cheese graders.”
Still another nail salon operator said his salon was cited for violations and, when he informed the inspector that a beauty salon nearby operated in the same manner as he with the same equipment and space allocation, the investigator told him, “There are different rules for you guys.” When he complained to the investigator that he may challenge an administrative hearing on the issue, she said, “You may as well pay the $1,200 fine now. If you challenge it, they’re just going to add $550 administrative costs and there is no way you can win!” When he inquired how that could be possible for his operation to be treated so differently than the nearby beauty salon, the investigator responded, “They can do whatever they want!”
Yet another complaint of Vietnamese operators is the haphazard manner in which Young is “notified” of violations. Many Vietnamese salon operators said inspectors were shifted to their districts to concentrate on them and that they make it a point of showing up on Saturdays to provide the maximum negative impact to their salon’s operations.
Young said that unlicensed salon operators have “no skill” and “aren’t educated.” Vietnamese manicurists and salon operators said his statement was as an insult and indicated Vietnamese families train relatives to perform the service with safety at the forefront.
Recently, President Obama proposed his FY ’16 budget containing $15 billion for states to explore abolishing many boards and commissions which restrict job opportunities. Louisiana Treasurer John Kennedy supports such action in Louisiana.
In an interview with Louisiana Voice, Young indicated the Federal discrimination lawsuit is “about over with,” a curious claim given that Federal Judge Brian Jackson has denied every state effort to toss the suit. In his rulings of March 20, Jackson denied the state’s motions to dismiss the complaint against inspector Stockstill both for racial discrimination and false imprisonment. Jackson dismissed the false imprisonment complaint against Keller but refused to dismiss the discrimination claim. The trial is estimated to commence on January 17, 2017 and last for seven days.
According to records available through LaTrac, the state has authorized spending of close to $300,000 so far in defending the racial discrimination lawsuit. Louisiana Voice made a public records request directly to the law firm providing the defense, Shows Cali. Readers may recall that Shows serves as Buddy Caldwell’s campaign treasurer for this fall’s attorney general race. Further, in an investigative report by WWL in New Orleans, Shows was identified as a huge beneficiary of Caldwell’s propensity to award lucrative multi-million-dollar contracts to his close friends and associates.
Mississippi, also has considerable problems with its Cosmetology Board as evidenced by this rant by Mississippi State Representative Steven Holland in February of 2015. Unlike Louisiana, however, Mississippi requires all funds collected by boards and commissions to be placed in the state’s general fund and then individual boards and commissions must make application for funds for that year. Holland says the Mississippi Cosmetology Board’s funds need to be a “big goose egg.”