New York nail salon workers are pushing for industry-wide health and labor standards over fears that working conditions have become more dire during the Covid pandemic.
In an industry first, nail technicians, aided by labor organizers, are calling for the creation of a new council that would involve people at multiple levels — from government officials to employees to salon owners — in an effort to establish healthier wages and labor standards. They push for standards such as fixed hours, minimum wage compliance, health insurance, ventilation and language access for immigrant workers throughout New York. While the council would work at the state level, proponents hope the effort will lead to better national standards for the industry.
Working conditions in nail salons have long been a concern for many, and the pandemic and declining economy have exacerbated existing challenges. Nail technicians say work hours have become more inconsistent and they are increasingly concerned about the safety of the products they use.
“We don’t want new nail salon workers going through the same thing we’ve gone through in the future,” said Sabita Lama, a nail technician and nail worker at Adhikaar, a community nonprofit that is part of the New York Healthy Nail Salon Coalition, speak in Nepali through a translator.
The issues, said one expert, are complex because conditions and resources available in salons vary widely. Although the bill in New York, introduced earlier this year, would help set the industry standard, it has not yet been put to a vote.
But as the pandemic continues, 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 being Asian and Pacific islanders. And 88% were born abroad. Many work in the industry because of the low barriers to entry, especially if the skills and education they acquired in their home countries are considered non-transferable in the US
However, nail technicians said the work is often grueling and they are not always fairly compensated. Some salons comply with the minimum wage law, but retain the tips and commission that employees earn by giving massages or providing other services, Lama said. And others can’t meet the state’s $15 per hour minimum wage mandate.
A report released by the Industrial and Labor Relations Institute at Cornell University similarly noted in April that wage theft is still a “common” problem in the industry. But varying pay structures in salons make it difficult to enforce the minimum wage requirement, or for employees to even know when they are not being fairly compensated. Researchers also wrote that “misclassifying” employees as independent contractors has also led to wage inequality, as independent contractors are not protected by minimum wage requirements and other labor laws.
As businesses struggle with the pandemic, fewer salons are giving employees a set schedule of fixed hours, making it that much harder to earn a living, Lama added. Cornell’s report similarly noted that nail technicians reported unpredictable schedules during periods of slower business due to seasonal changes and the pandemic.
As a result, “employees describe their hours being reduced; for some this happened in a more orderly fashion with a predictable winter schedule, but for many it has led to an unpredictable work schedule where they can be sent home after three to six hours, or vice versa, they can be called up suddenly on an unexpectedly busy day or under pressure to work extra hours during busy periods such as the holiday season,” the report said.
Due to inconsistent work and fears that their scarce work hours could be cut short, some employees said they felt pressured not to report health issues or concerns, which they fear have developed over the years as a result. from working with toxic chemicals in the midst of inadequate ventilation.
Pabitra Dash, a former nail technician, said she and her husband had been trying to conceive a child for years. But Dash said she’d had seven miscarriages during her eight years in the industry.
“Every time I saw the doctor I was so scared,” said Dash, a Nepalese immigrant who is currently an organizer at Adhikaar. “Like, oh, she’s going to tell me again that I miscarried.”
After leaving the industry, Dash was finally able to carry a child to term, she said. Although the doctor never said the chemicals were the cause of her miscarriages, she seemed 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 Researching working conditions in nail salons, notes there was evidence that long-term exposure to phthalates, the type of chemical used in some “personal care products,” was linked to cancer, miscarriage and infertility.
In addition to possible reproductive problems, Lama said many nail technicians have trouble breathing. Reports indicate that chemicals have also been linked to cognitive development problems, cancer and irritations, according to Cornell’s report.
Lama herself had just returned from a two-month hiatus from the industry after experiencing a burning sensation in her throat.
Some said they were also concerned that health risks from Covid had increased as more cleaning solutions are being used to keep areas hygienic, Lama said. And not all companies provide or require their employees to wear protective equipment such as gloves, masks or sunglasses for treatments that require UV light. While nail salons were given ventilation requirements in 2016 and given five years to meet, the government of Prime Minister Kathy Hochul pushed the deadline to allow an additional six months. The requirements are currently taking effect in October.
Without mask or vaccine mandates for clients, salon workers are also regularly at risk of exposure to Covid. Despite the health risks they face on a daily basis, Lama says most nail technicians don’t have health insurance from their employer.
Miliann Kang, author of “The Managed Hand: Race, Gender and the Body in Beauty Service Work,” said an analysis of the industry requires a nuanced, multi-layered approach, taking into account the larger environment that many of these immigrant-run businesses create. are active before effective solutions could be achieved and implemented.
Kang warned against painting all salons with a broad brush and challenged people to look at their business models on a case-by-case basis. While some establishments are run by conglomerates, others are mom-and-pop stores.
Often the owners in smaller salons work as nail technicians themselves, with a small profit margin. Like other small businesses across the country operating during the pandemic, nail technicians and other frontline workers have suffered the most from the financial pressures, Kang said. She emphasized that family businesses should not ignore labor standards and that solutions should be tailored to specific business models.
And when examining the industry’s problems, customers also play a role in the circumstances, Kang said. Many clients put undue pressure on low-income immigrant salon workers and underestimate their work.
“A lot of times people go in expecting to pay for a $15 manicure, but they want services that they would honestly have to pay $50 for,” Kang said.
Kang stressed that companies should be held accountable for the treatment of their employees. But, Kang said, it’s critical to examine these often Asian companies in the context of race and the current economy. Many of the same pandemic-fueled stereotypes have led in part to the use of more chemicals, she said.
“These companies are already incorrectly associated with contamination and contamination fears,” Kang said. “They need to be especially vigilant about pushing back those kinds of assumptions that have been blown out of proportion with the pandemic — that Asians are somehow unclean or contagious disease carriers.”
And all too often, health and safety concerns about chemical exposure fall solely on the shoulders of these owners, many of whom run mom-and-pop stores, Kang said. While there are tangible steps owners should take to mitigate damage, Kang said manufacturers developing these products should also be to blame.
“If there are toxic chemicals in the products, and they are not regulated, it will create a toxic work environment,” Kang said. “It shouldn’t just be at the retail floor level.”
An acclaimed bill, the Council’s Minimum Standards for Nail Salon Act, was introduced in January by state senator Jessica Ramos and MP Harry Bronson, both Democrats. The bill would create a nail salon industry council, made up of workers, employers and government officials, that would set standards from wages to leisure. It would also require an independent committee of economic experts to work out 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 staged a protest outside the State Capitol building in Albany to put pressure on lawmakers. Lama said workers and activists are willing to do whatever it takes to get the legislation passed, however long it takes.
“What we’re asking is an absolute minimum,” Lama said.