By Carolyn Bick
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Each day, Vietnamese immigrant Kim Nguyen opens the doors to her beauty school in Chinatown.
Each day, she teaches students, many of them immigrants themselves, the practice of cosmetology, so they may start their own careers here. And each day, she worries that the Washington State Department of Licensing (DOL) is going to send yet another inspector to try to close down her school.
A little less than two years ago, in 2017, the DOL told the 42-year-old beauty school owner and mother of three that she was being placed on probation, and had to remedy what it stated were repeated health and safety violations that scored her a 63 out of 100, and that she failed to remedy the violations in a follow-up inspection the following month.
In addition to working to correct the violations cited, Nguyen paid a $1,000 fine and traveled on her own down to Olympia to sign a letter in English—not her first language—agreeing to more frequent inspections for two years, and giving inspectors the power to shut down her business again for any health and safety violation they found. Since then, Nguyen has passed all her inspections. Her most recent one netted her a perfect score of 100.
But the DOL is now trying to force Nguyen to sign a similar probation letter—also in English.
However, the 2018 violation cited has been disputed by multiple witnesses, and Nguyen says what the DOL is doing is harassment, rather than its actual job.
According to an inspection report from January 2018, a student told DOL inspector Carole Arias that neither a licensed instructor nor Nguyen was present in the beauty school at the time some of her students were practicing on customers, but that Nguyen was on her way. Though a senior cosmetologist, Phi Nhut Nguyen, was present, and had a license to practice cosmetology, the inspector wrote that he had not taken his exams to become a licensed instructor. The report stated that his 505 hours spent learning at the beauty school to become a licensed instructor had expired in 2015. However, it does not directly state that he was teaching the seven students in the room.
The official statement of charges also claimed he was conducting a haircut at the time of her inspection.
However, according to Nguyen’s rebuttal letter, the student actually told Arias that Nguyen was just outside in the parking lot gathering some supplies from her car, which was parked right in front of the school, when Arias walked into the school. Nguyen’s students also wrote a rebuttal letter of their own, which supported this claim.
There was also a licensed instructor, Thuy Giannini, in a different room training another student in facials. In their rebuttal letter, Nguyen’s students said they did not recall Arias ever asking if there was another instructor at the school, so they were surprised to see she claimed there was no licensed instructor present.
“We do not think that Carol [sic] even walked through the entire school since she did not have the correct head counts,” the students’ letter reads.
Giannini’s letter contests Arias’ statement, too. Giannini said she didn’t see Arias, at the time, because she was in the facial room, teaching another student, which appears to back up the assertion that Arias didn’t do a complete walkthrough of the school.
“Inspector Carol [sic] should have done her walkthrough more completely and thoroughly, and every other student who was at school that day can be a witness. Since I am a licensed instructor for the school, the accusation that the students did not have an instructor on the premise [sic] is not true,” Giannini’s letter reads.
Furthermore, while he operates independently out of the school, the students and Nguyen assert that Phi Nhut Nguyen was not cutting hair or working at the time of Arias’ visit. In his own rebuttal letter, Phi Nhut Nguyen said he operates his own business, and does not cut school customers’ hair.
Arias wrote in her report that Nguyen was away from the school for five minutes, but Nguyen and her students said she was only away for a maximum of two or three minutes, reappearing “instantly with all the supplies in hand when the inspector was about to inspect.”
“We saw they both say hi to each other,” the students’ letter reads. While the law states that licensed instructors “must be physically present where students are training,” Nguyen said she couldn’t very well have taken all seven students outside into the parking lot with her, and then ferried them all back inside. That would have needlessly disrupted their training. Calling Giannini into the room, while Nguyen was outside, would have created the same problem for Giannini’s student.
Nevertheless, DOL flagged Nguyen, and she has once again found herself facing another two years of operating on tenterhooks.
It wasn’t the first time Arias had visited the school. She and her colleague Elizabeth Melia were the inspectors who did the follow-up inspection of the school in August 2017, a month after the July inspection that scored Nguyen a 63. According to a statement by customer Todd Hansen, who was getting his back waxed at the time, Melia “entered the Facial [sic] room without knocking on the door, and made everyone stop working, and then I had to leave the room and go downstairs without my shirt on until she was done with her inspection.”
“This took quite a long time, and I felt very uncomfortable while all this was going on,” Hansen’s statement continues. “I really feel as though the way the inspectors handled their duties hampered the schools [sic] business, and that they could have done this inspection without putting a stop to everyone [sic] work.”
Department spokesperson Christine Anthony said inspectors are not supposed to tell customers to leave, either before or after the inspection.
“That is not the role of the inspector,” Anthony said in an email.
Over the last two years, Nguyen estimated she has been subjected to six or seven inspections, all of which she has passed. Normally, Anthony said in a phone interview, beauty schools and salons are inspected once every two years. However, the agreement Nguyen signed consented to being inspected more frequently.
Some of the violations for which Nguyen was initially flagged in July 2017 seemed needlessly “nit-picky,” Todd Myers of the Washington State Policy Center said. Myers has been working to try to help Nguyen with her case. For instance, the July 2017 DOL inspector Tom Fite flagged a brand-new, empty spray bottle, because it hadn’t been labeled.
“I said, ‘Sir, if you want, I have to label the container water or lotion, it’s just empty – should I write, ‘empty bottle?’” Nguyen recalled asking Fite.
Of the total 15 violations listed from July 2017, Melia and Arias listed seven uncorrected offenses, according to the DOL’s statement of charges. Some of these violations include used nail files and buffers at students’ stations; hair on a clipper; uncovered, clean tools; and storing a mobile phone with clean tools.
The newest probation order revokes Nguyen’s license for a period of five years, but gives her a two-year stay on the revocation.
The order also fines her business $1,000—though Nguyen said her lawyer has negotiated that fine down to $500—and once again subjects her to more frequent inspections, the number of which is not listed. It states that she must pass all safety and sanitation inspections for the next two years, or the department may immediately revoke her license, thereby shutting down her school. The minimum score a beauty school may receive to pass an inspection is 86. If the beauty school passes all these requirements over the two-year timespan, and does not incur any further violations, the probation order will be lifted.
As with the 2017 probation order, the newest one is in English. At the time she signed the 2017 letter, Nguyen said she didn’t fully understand what she was signing, and that she wished she had had a lawyer present. She said department personnel did not offer her a copy of the letter in Vietnamese, nor did they offer to provide her with a translator. The letter itself asks the signatory if they want translation services provided, but it does so in English.
In her email, Anthony said the department will “provide translated documents upon request,” but would not say if the translation services were verbally offered. She only said that the request is “part of the inspector checklist, and are always available.”
Similarly, Nguyen said, the inspectors who have shown up periodically over the last two years have always conducted their inspections in English, and never offered to provide a translator – which, according to Anthony, they should have done and should be doing.
“Yes, inspectors offer translation services prior to inspections,” Anthony said in an email.
When asked when the inspectors are supposed to offer a translator, Anthony repeated, “Again, the translator request is part of the inspector checklist and is always available.” She did not clarify if a person is verbally notified that they may request translation services.
The inspectors also presented Nguyen with findings in English. She said the department did not offer to provide her with a copy of the findings in Vietnamese. Anthony said a translated copy is available upon request.
Nguyen said she feels targeted for being an immigrant competing with more expensive American beauty schools, and also feels harassed by the DOL for on-paper violations that, in practice, were not actual problems. She is worried, she said, not only about the future of her business, but also about her students, a majority of whom do not speak English.
“If they go to American schools, they cannot pass the tests,” Nguyen said.
On May 31, Nguyen received a letter stating that she would have to appear in court in Tacoma in August. The letter, written in English, came without any other explanation. She had to call her lawyer, Douglas Brown of Abelson Herron Halpern LLP, for clarification about what it meant. If she does not settle with the DOL, they will take her to court, she said, per her lawyer. The letter wasn’t a certainty, just a possibility. But to Nguyen, because the letter was unclear on that point, it felt like intimidation—a threat.
Brown declined to comment on the record.
Anthony said the department cannot discuss the case, because it’s still an open case. However, she said that the inspections are designed to help Nguyen. Nguyen disagrees. She said she doesn’t feel supported or helped, just needlessly scrutinized in a way that makes it difficult for her business and her students to thrive.
“[The DOL] are doing it totally wrong. This is harmful to my business. … They say, ‘This is helping the business.’ No way,” Nguyen said. “Every time they come to my business, it’s always ‘We’re gonna help your business.’ I don’t think so. They cause us trouble, and we cannot focus on business.”
Nguyen has not signed the newest letter, and is still in the process of negotiation.
Carolyn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.