Nail technicians call for safer working conditions and more stable pay as Covid exacerbates risks

Workers at nail salons in New York are pushing for industry-wide health and labor standards over fears working conditions have worsened amid the Covid pandemic.

For the first time in the industry, nail designers, with the support of union officials, are campaigning to create a new council that would involve people at multiple levels – from government officials to workers to salon owners – to set healthier wages and labor norms. They are pushing for standards like set hours, meeting minimum wage requirements, health insurance, ventilation, and language access for immigrants throughout New York. While the council would work at the state level, proponents hope the effort will result in improved industry standards statewide.

Working conditions in nail salons have long been a concern for many, and the pandemic and slowing economy have exacerbated existing challenges. Nail technicians say work hours have become more irregular and that they are increasingly concerned about the safety of the products they use.

“We don’t want new nail salon employees to have to go through what we went through in the future,” said Sabita Lama, nail technician and nail worker at Adhikaar, a nonprofit community organization that’s part of the New York Healthy Nail Salon Coalition, which is translated by translator speaks Nepali.

The problems, one expert said, are complex because conditions and available resources vary widely in salons. While the New York law introduced earlier this year would help establish an industry standard, it has not yet been put to a vote.

But as the pandemic continues, many nail technicians and organizers say the issues demand urgency.

New York State has the highest concentration of nail technicians in the country, with 73% of this workforce made up of Asian and Pacific Islanders. And 88% were foreign-born. Many work in the industry because of the low barriers to entry, especially when the skills and education they have acquired in their home countries are considered non-transferrable in the US

However, nail technicians said the work is often grueling and they are not always paid fairly. Some salons comply with the minimum wage law but keep the tips and commissions workers earn from massages or other services, Lama said. And others may not comply with the federal minimum wage mandate of $15 an hour.

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

A report released in April by Cornell University’s Industrial and Labor Relations Institute also found that wage theft remains a “pervasive” problem in the industry. But different wage structures in salons make it difficult to enforce the minimum wage requirement or make it difficult for workers to even know when they are not being paid fairly. Researchers also wrote that “misclassification” of 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 continue to grapple with the pandemic, fewer and fewer salons are giving workers a fixed schedule with set hours, making it far more difficult to make a living, Lama added. Cornell’s report similarly found that nail designers were reporting unpredictable schedules during periods of slower business caused by seasonal changes and the pandemic.

As a result, “workers describe that their working hours have been reduced; For some, this happened in a more orderly fashion with a predictable winter schedule, but for many it has resulted in an unpredictable work schedule, where they may be sent home after three to six hours of work or, conversely, be suddenly called up on an unexpectedly busy day or under the Pressure to work extra time during busy periods like the holidays,” the report said.

Due to the inconsistent work and fears that their scarce hours could be reduced, some workers felt pressured not to report health concerns or issues they fear are arising from working with toxic chemicals over the years may have developed insufficient ventilation.

Pabitra Dash, a former nail salon technician, said she and her husband had been trying to conceive 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,” said Dash, a Nepalese immigrant who is currently an organizer at Adhikaar. “Like, oh, she’s gonna tell me again that I miscarried.”

After leaving the industry, Dash was finally able to carry a child, she said. While the doctor never said the chemicals were the cause of her miscarriages, she seemed relieved when Dash revealed she was no longer working with 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 examining working conditions in nail salons notes that there was evidence that prolonged exposure to phthalates, the type of chemical used in some “personal care” products, has been linked to cancer, miscarriage and infertility.

In addition to potential reproductive issues, Lama said, many nail designers have reported breathing difficulties. Reports show chemicals have also been linked to cognitive development problems, cancer and irritation, according to Cornell’s report.

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

Some said they were also concerned that health risks with Covid had worsened as more cleaning solutions were used to keep areas hygienic, Lama said. And not all companies provide or require employees to wear protective equipment such as gloves, masks or sunglasses for treatments that require UV light. While nail salons were imposed ventilation requirements in 2016 and had five years to meet them, Gov. Kathy Hochul’s administration pushed back the deadline to six more months. The requirements are currently scheduled to come into force in October.

With no mask or vaccination requirements for clients, salon staff also risk regular Covid exposure hazards. Despite the health risks they face every day, Lama said 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 analyzing the industry requires nuanced, multi-faceted approaches and consideration of the larger context in which many of these immigrant-run businesses operate in operation before effective solutions could be reached and implemented.

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

In smaller salons, owners often work as nail technicians themselves, with a small margin of profitability. Similar to other small businesses across the country operating amid the pandemic, nail technicians and other frontline workers have had to bear the brunt of the financial burden, Kang said. She emphasized that family businesses should not ignore labor standards and that solutions must be tailored to the respective business models.

And in examining the issues across the industry, customers also play a role in conditions, Kang said. Many clients put undue pressure on low-income immigrant salon workers and underestimate their manpower.

“A lot of people walk in expecting they’ll pay 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 technician in New York on July 6, 2020.Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images file

Kang stressed that companies must be held accountable for the treatment of their employees. But, Kang said, examining these often Asian-owned companies in the context of race and the current economy is crucial. Many of the same pandemic-related stereotypes, in part, would have sparked the use of more chemicals, she said.

“These companies are already being falsely associated with contamination and infection fears,” Kang said. “They must be particularly vigilant in pushing back assumptions that have been exaggerated by the pandemic – that Asians are somehow impure or contagious carriers of disease.”

And all too often, health and safety concerns about exposure to chemicals rest solely on the shoulders of these owners, many of whom operate corner shops, Kang said. Although there are specific steps owners should take to mitigate the damage, Kang said manufacturers who develop these products should also be at fault.

“If the products contain toxic chemicals and they are not regulated, then it will create a toxic work environment,” Kang said. “It shouldn’t just be on them at the workshop level.”

A widely acclaimed bill, the Nail Salon Minimum Standards Council Act, was introduced in January by state Senator Jessica Ramos and Assemblyman Harry Bronson, both Democrats. The bill would create an industry council for nail salons, made up of workers, employers and government officials, that would set standards for wages and time off. It would also require an independent committee of economic experts to develop a fair floor pricing model.

While many say the bill can transform the industry by creating much safer jobs, it has not yet passed. In May, nail technicians protested outside the State Capitol building in Albany to pressure lawmakers. Lama said workers and activists stand ready to do whatever it takes to help get the law passed, no matter how long it takes.

“What we ask is a bare minimum,” Lama said.

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