SAN MATEO, CA — Immigrant workers at a chain of nail salons in the South Bay and on the Peninsula were forced to pay for accidentally broken bottles of nail polish and had to turn over a portion of their tips to managers, according to a lawsuit filed Tuesday.

The workers at Natalie Salon locations in San Mateo, Redwood City, Menlo Park, Palo Alto and Los Gatos would sometimes work seven days a week without legally mandated overtime pay, said Winnie Kao, an attorney representing them. Management routinely kept 20 percent of tips left for the workers on credit card payments and didn’t allow them to take a lunch break, according to the suit filed Tuesday in San Mateo County Superior Court.

Kao, who works for San Francisco-based watchdog group Asian Law Caucus, said the workers are all Vietnamese women who have been in the United States for varying periods of time. They are among many Asian women who have gravitated toward the nail and beauty industry. Kao said the training is relatively quick, English language skills are not essential, and workers have the comfort of being with compatriots.

However, managers allegedly fined the Natalie Salon workers for small infractions like gathering at the front
desk or failing to record that a foot bath has been cleaned. Kao contends these wage garnishments are illegal. Workers also had their pay docked due to minor accidents, like breaking a nail polish bottle during the course of work — even when it wasn’t their fault.

“It is kind of crazy to be docked for your customers’ dropping nail polish,” Kao said. “It is a completely innocuous accident.”

The women began talking to one another and eventually sought help at an outreach event put on by the Asian Law Caucus. Kao said she has not tabulated the potential amount of money owed to the women and declined to estimate.

However, she believes at least 50 workers have been subjected to the same treatment.

So far three current employees — Bich Pham, Lilian Nguyen and Evelyn Nguyen — have joined the suit. Former worker Vicky Tran is also a plaintiff in the case. They are asking to be certified as a class so they can pursue a class-action lawsuit. The women have demanded a jury trial.

“By bringing this case, I just want Natalie Salon to correctly pay me and the other women who work there for the work that we’ve done and to follow the law,” Tran said in a written statement.

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