BY Lonna Dawson
Tiger Li’s cell phone repair shop, Techtronics Mobile Solutions, occupies a diminutive and easily-missed space on W. 35th Street. There is no sign to identify the shop on the first floor of a 16-story building. Li wants to put up a sign, but as a new business owner, he has to obtain a permit and have the sign installed by a city-approved, licensed sign hanger. If the sign is in violation of building code, Li could incur an initial $10,000 fine and a $25,000 fine for subsequent violations, according to the Department of Buildings.
Mayor Bill de Blasio announced his Small Business First initiative on July 25, designed to ease the city’s punitive regulatory environment. The new initiative aims to create what it calls “unprecedented collaboration,” requiring regulatory departments to work together to ease fines, according to a press release from the city’s Small Business Services (SBS) department.
The Department of Consumer Affairs reported issuing over $16 million in fines in the 2013 fiscal year; the Department of Buildings issued more than $45 million in fines in the same year.
At the press conference for the initiative, Mayor de Blasio said, “From simplifying the rules and regulations to helping small business owners remain compliant, we are bringing together agencies in a concerted effort to ensure our small business owners have the resources and support they need to flourish.”
While Li’s situation typifies the experiences that the de Blasio initiative seeks to remedy, business organizations are also interested in what the initiative means for proprietors who do not speak English. “There is going to be a lot more attention paid to immigrant-owned businesses whose first language is not English,” said Nancy Ploeger, President of the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce. “A lot of times there is a misunderstanding or violation simply because they (non- English speaking business owners) can’t read the law or understand how to interpret it.”
Zulema Wiscovitch, Executive Director of the National Supermarket Association (NSA), a trade association that represents more than 400 supermarkets and bodegas on the East Coast, thinks that non-English speaking proprietors in the supermarket industry will benefit from the initiative. “This is a positive step, especially with the immigrant community,” she says. “They own very, very small supermarkets and don’t have big infrastructures like the chain stores. They don’t have someone in charge of compliance.”
According to Wiscovitch, who says most of the business owners in NSA speak Spanish, one source of excessive fines comes from price labeling. Every item in a supermarket must have a price tag on it, as mandated by the Department of Consumer Affairs. Supermarket owners can incur several fines at once for not having price labels on each item in the store; the problem is often compounded because owners who do not speak English do not understand how to rectify the violation and incur the same fine repeatedly.
The initiative proposes that translators accompany inspectors in the field — but Wiscovitch thinks that more can be done by the administration during this planning period to get face-to-face input from non-English speaking business owners.
According to Lulu Mickelson, a spokesperson for SBS, business owners can share their recommendations for the initiative via a form on the SBS website. Mickelson did not have a comment when asked if public hearings would be held.
But Wiscovitch believes that the online form will exclude input from non-English speaking business owners. “The supermarket retailer community is not very high tech. I doubt they’re going to get any feedback online,” says Wiscovitch, who wants SBS to arrange meetings with business owners, or to work with NSA to collect feedback from member supermarkets.
The full Small Business First report will be released in late fall.