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Nail technicians demand safer working conditions and steadier pay as Covid aggravates risks

In a first for the industry, nail technicians are fighting for the creation of a new council to set healthier wage and labor standards on the state level.
Image: Nail Salon
A client receives a pedicure at Mochi nail salon in Brooklyn, N.Y., on July 6, 2020.Angela Weiss / AFP via Getty Images file

Nail salon workers in New York are pushing for industrywide health and labor standards over fears that working conditions have become more dire amid the Covid pandemic. 

In a first for the industry, nail technicians, aided by labor organizers, are advocating for the creation of a new council that would involve people on multiple levels — from government officials to workers to salon owners — in an effort to set healthier wage and labor standards. They are pushing for standards such as set hours, compliance with the minimum wage requirement, health insurance, ventilation and language access for immigrant workers across New York. While the council would work at the state level, advocates hope the effort will lead to improved industry standards nationwide. 

Working conditions in nail salons have long been a topic of concern for many, and the pandemic and waning economy have exacerbated existing challenges. Nail technicians say work hours have become more inconsistent, and that they’ve grown increasingly worried about the safety of the products they use.  

“We don’t want any new nail salon workers in the future to go through what we have gone through,” said Sabita Lama, a nail technician and nail fellow at Adhikaar, a community nonprofit organization that is part of the New York Healthy Nail Salon Coalition, speaking in Nepali through a translator. 

The issues, one expert said, are complex as conditions and available resources in salons vary widely. While the New York  bill, introduced earlier this year, would help to establish industry standards, it has not yet been brought to a vote. 

But as the pandemic wears on, many nail technicians and organizers say the issues require urgency. 

New York State has the highest concentration of nail technicians in the country, with 73% of that workforce made up of Asian and Pacific Islanders. And 88% are foreign born. Many work in the industry because of its low barriers to entry, particularly if the skills and education they may have acquired in their home countries are deemed nontransferable in the U.S. 

Nail technicians said, however, that the work is often grueling, and that they aren’t always fairly compensated. Some salons comply with the minimum wage law but keep the tips and commission that workers earn from giving massages or providing other services, Lama said. And others may not comply with the state’s $15 an hour minimum wage mandate. 

Salon workers in Queens, New York, on May 11, 2022.Andrea Renault / AFP via Getty Images file

A report released by Cornell University’s Industrial and Labor Relations Institute in April similarly found that wage theft continues to be a “prevalent” issue in the industry. But varying pay structures across salons make the minimum wage requirement difficult to enforce, or for workers to even know when they are not being fairly compensated. Researchers also wrote that a “misclassification” of employees as independent contractors has also led to wage inequities, as independent contractors are not protected by minimum wage requirements and other labor laws. 

As businesses continue to struggle in the pandemic, fewer salons are giving workers a fixed schedule with set hours, making it far more difficult to make a living, Lama added. The report from Cornell similarly noted that nail technicians reported unpredictable schedules during periods of slower business brought on by seasonal changes and the pandemic. 

As a result, “workers describe having their hours reduced; for some, this occurred in a more ordered manner with a predictable winter schedule, but for many it has led to an unpredictable work schedule wherein they might be sent home after working for three to six hours, or conversely, they might be suddenly called in on an unexpectedly busy day or pressured to work extra time during busy periods such as the holidays,” according to the report.

Because of the inconsistentcy of the work and the fear that their scarce work hours could be cut back, some workers said they felt pressured to refrain from reporting health concerns or problems, which they fear might have developed over the years as a result of working with toxic chemicals amid insufficient ventilation.  

Pabitra Dash, a former nail salon technician, said she and her husband had been trying to conceive a child for years. But Dash said she suffered seven miscarriages during her eight years in the industry. 

“Every time I saw the doctor I was so scared,” Dash, a Nepalese immigrant who’s currently an organizer with Adhikaar, said. “Like, Oh, she’s gonna tell me again I had a miscarriage.” 

After she left the industry, Dash was finally able to carry a child to term, she said. While the doctor never said the chemicals were the cause of her miscarriages, she appeared relieved when Dash revealed she no longer worked in nails, Dash said. 

“She said, ‘It’s really good for your health and your baby,’” Dash said, recalling the conversation. 

A 2012 study in the Journal of Law and Policy that examines working conditions in nail salons notes there were indications that prolonged exposure to phthalates, the type of chemical used in some “personal care products,” had been linked to cancer, miscarriages, and infertility.

In addition to potential reproductive problems, Lama said that many nail technicians have reported difficulty breathing. Reports show that chemicals had also been linked to cognitive development issues, cancer and irritations, according to the report from Cornell. 

Lama herself had just returned from a two-month hiatus from the industry after developing a burning sensation in her throat. 

Some said they also worried that health risks had intensified with Covid, as more cleaning solutions are used to keep the areas sanitary, Lama said. And not all businesses provide their workers with protective gear like gloves, masks or sunglasses for treatments that require UV light, or mandate they wear them. While nail salons were given ventilation requirements in 2016 and allowed five years to comply, Gov. Kathy Hochul’s administration pushed the deadline to allow for six additional months. Currently, the requirements are set to take effect in October. 

A worker gives a manicure to a client in Queens, New York on May 11, 2022.Andrea Renault / AFP via Getty Images file

Without mask or vaccine mandates for customers, salon workers also risk regular Covid exposure hazards. Despite the health risks they confront daily, Lama said that most nail technicians do not receive health insurance from their employers. 

Miliann Kang, author of “The Managed Hand: Race, Gender and the Body in Beauty Service Work,” said that analysis of the industry required nuanced, multitiered approaches, and a consideration of the larger environment that many of these immigrant-run businesses are operating in, before effective solutions could be reached and implemented. 

Kang cautioned against painting all salons with a broad brush, challenging people to examine their business models on a case-by-case basis. While some establishments are run by conglomerates, others are mom-and-pop shops. 

Oftentimes at smaller salons, the owners are working as nail technicians themselves, with a small margin of profitability. Much like other small businesses across the country operating in the pandemic, nail technicians and other frontline workers have had to bear the brunt of the financial strain, Kang said. She emphasized that family-run businesses should not ignore labor standards, and that solutions needed to be tailored to the specific business models. 

And in examining the issues across the industry, customers play a role in the conditions too, Kang said. Many patrons put undue pressures on low-income, immigrant salon workers and undervalue their labor.

“Many times people go in with the expectation that they’re paying for a $15 manicure, but they want services that honestly they should pay $50 for,” Kang said. 

Nail technicians work at Bona Nail Salon
Nail technicians in New York on July 6, 2020.Lev Radin / Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images file

Kang emphasized that businesses need to be held accountable for the treatment of their employees. But, Kang said, it’s critical to examine these often Asian-owned businesses in the context of race and the current economy. Many of the very same pandemic-fueled stereotypes have, in part, triggered the use of more chemicals, she said. 

“These businesses already are wrongly associated with contamination and fears of infection,” said Kang. “They have to be especially vigilant at pushing back on those kinds of assumptions that have been blown out of proportion with the pandemic — that Asians are somehow unclean or infectious disease carriers.”

And too often, health and safety concerns over chemical exposure fall solely on the shoulders of these owners, many of them running mom-and-pop shops, Kang said. Though there are tangible steps owners should take to mitigate harm, Kang said manufacturers who develop these products should also be culpable.

“If there are toxic chemicals in the products, and those aren’t being regulated, then that’s going to create a toxic work environment,” Kang said. “It shouldn’t just be on them at the level of the shop floor.”

One widely celebrated bill, the Nail Salon Minimum Standards Council Act, was introduced in January by state Senator Jessica Ramos and Assembly Member Harry Bronson, both Democrats. The bill would create a nail salon industry council, made up of workers, employers and government officials, that would establish standards from wages to time off. It would also require an independent committee of economic experts to devise a fair minimum pricing model. 

While many say the bill has the power to transform the industry by creating much safer workplaces, it has not yet been passed. In May, nail technicians held a protest outside the state Capitol building in Albany to put pressure on lawmakers. Lama said that workers and activists are prepared to do whatever it takes to help get the legislation passed, no matter how long it takes. 

“What we are asking for is a very bare minimum,” Lama said.