In May the New York Times did a report on the alleged exploitation of women who work in those ubiquitous nail salons most of us make use of from time to time.

I for one hailed the report at Pulitzer-worthy and promised that I'd never again be able to patronize one of those outlets with a clean conscience.

New York Governor Mario Cuomo may not have vowed never to get an inexpensive mani-pedi at one of these shops but he enacted emergency regulations aimed at halting alleged abuse.

Well, now the New York Times story appears to be falling apart.

Reason magazine reports:

But as with so much high-profile message journalism recently, the Times article seems based on dubious facts and broad generalizations. In The New York Review of Books, Richard Bernstein challenges many of the claims on which Nir's narrative is based. A former Times journalist, Bernstein now owns two spas with his China-born wife, Zhongmei Li, and her sister Zhongqin Li.

"We were startled by the Times article’s Dickensian portrait of an industry in which workers 'spend their days holding hands with women of unimaginable affluence,' and retire at night to 'flophouses packed with bunk beds, or in fetid apartments shared by as many as a dozen strangers,'" writes Bernstein. "Its conclusion was not just that some salons or even many salons steal wages from their workers but that virtually all of them do." 

One of the primary pieces of evidence [New York Times reporter Sarah Maslin] Nir offered for this assertion is that "Asian-language newspapers are rife with classified ads listing manicurist jobs paying so little the daily wage can at first glance appear to be a typo." She claimed to have "confirmed with several workers" that an ad published in the city's two largest Chinese-language newspapers, Sing Tao Daily and World Journal, featured one Upper West Side nail salon paying workers just $10 per day. 

Bernstein and his wife found this surprising, so they started combing through the employment ads in those papers themselves. What they found—looking at papers from two months before the Times expose was published to several days after—was a lowest rate of $70 per day plus tips, and many higher. 

Of course advertised salaries and what women actually earn can be quite different, so Zhongmei Li contacted various salons posing as a potential employee. She learned that salons can't get good employees for these jobs unless they can promise their potential employees $100 a day. This doesn't rule out promising more than is actually paid but it does sound like the situation is considerably different from the quasi-slavery portrayed in the New York Times article.

Bernstein also contends that the Times erred in portraying Jing Ren, a Chinese woman in the U.S. illegally and who reportedly had to pay a hundred dollar apprentice fee subsisted on tips alone for three months, as typical. Even if all this is true, however. . .

Ren's situation isn't quite as dire as it sounds: like wait staff and bartenders, salon workers are not required to be paid minimum wage because they (allegedly) make a large portion of their income in tips.

And within 10 months of starting, Ren had parlayed her initial low-paying job into work at another salon paying $65 per day plus tips. Her mother had also recently started working in a nail salon.

Though the article's underlying premise is one of abject misery—under-regulation giving way to an industry in which workers hold no power and thus wind up subject to any number of abuses—what actually emerges is a situation where someone with no nail skills and little English works for less than a year (while being trained) at the lowest pay-rung and then, thanks to her increased labor-market value and the fact that there are a ton of salons in New York City competing for good employees, successfully uses that experience to find more desirable and higher-paying work.

It appears that the original New York Times "report," with its Dickensian tale of misery and hopelessness, is yet another example of a mainstream media story that sacrifices the truth to an agenda.

It also clearly manifests what I call a "war on work" attitude, prevalent among progressives, that sees entry-level jobs not as a way to develop work habits and gain skills and move up but as a dead end job and in need of more layers of government regulation to make it bearable. .

And, ladies, you can now get an inexpensive manicure without guilt.