Video: New York Nail Salon Techs Push for Better Work Conditions, But It’s Complicated

The sounds of more than a hundred nail salon workers rallying traveled through the trees onto the street at Bryant Park on March 29, drowning out the honking traffic that morning.

The large group prepared to march down to Union Square in downtown Manhattan to vocalize their support for the Nail Salon Minimum Standards Council Act. The bill would enforce a $15 minimum wage requirement, establish minimum working hours and wages for various positions, enforce anti-discrimination laws, and establish specific parameters for health equipment and requirements on ventilation.

Research suggests that nail salon workers are regularly exposed to formaldehyde, dibutyl phthalate and toluene, which have been linked with increasing the risk of developing reproductive harm, cancer, cognitive development issues and allergies.

Another issue that workers regularly have to deal with is wage theft. Though employers are required to adhere to the minimum wage requirements, they sometimes hire workers as “independent contractors” instead of employees, as contractors are not entitled to minimum wage benefits. A 2021 survey found that 44% of surveyed nail workers were labeled as independent contractors rather than employees.

There are more than 5,200 salons in the city, and over 80% of workers are women of color, according to the Office of New York State Senator Jessica Ramos, the primary sponsor of the bill. The rally was coordinated by the NY Healthy Nail Salon Coalition, Adhikaar, a women-led group that serves the Nepali-speaking immigrants and refugees, and the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health, who work together to provide training and support for nail technicians across the city.

In 2015, nail salon workers prevailed when they won the Nail Salon Bill of Rights, which established a $15 minimum wage and determined that employers were to provide protective gear like respirator masks, nitrile gloves and eye protection for their workers. However, a 2021 report found that over 70% of workers were still being paid less than minimum wage.

The pandemic has also created challenges for workers. A 2021 report by the UCLA Labor Center found that nail salon visits state-wide dropped by more than 50%. According to the Bureau Labor of Statistics, 5,887 nail salon workers lost their job in New York City following the pandemic. This is tough for workers as many do not have the access to unemployment insurance. The bill will also look to establish insurance for workers in the industry.

While some nail salon workers hope that the bill will become law, the situation is more complicated for nail salon owners.

Kim Vu, a former nail salon worker, actively participates in the coordination of events that push for better conditions for those in the salon industry in New York City. She said it is important to also include salon workers in the dialogue for better working conditions for salon workers.

“The majority of people don’t realize most owners are immigrants who also work at salons while running the business full-time,” she said.

According to a 2018 report from the UCLA Labor Center, the nail salon owners are primarily immigrants of Vietnamese, Cambodian, Chinese and Korean backgrounds. The nail salon industry gained momentum during the aftermath of the Vietnam war, when thousands of Vietnamese refugees landed in the United States in search for a better life.

The current proposed legislation lays out conditions salon owners should follow, such as establishing regular breaks, working hours , and overtime for employees However, it does not address resources salon owners can use to improve the work situation for their employees. Research from Cornell University indicates that while salon workers face challenges in salons, immigrant salon owners also don’t necessarily have the best understanding of labor and employment laws, which could impact the way they run their businesses. Salon owners also cited competition with other salon businesses as one of the primary challenges, and owners often lower the prices of their services to attract more customers.

Though the bill does not directly address resources for owners, some members from the New York Committee of Occupational Health and Safety, which organizes workers, unions and activists for worker safety and health, said that its passing would be beneficial for owners.

“The bill would look to establish a council that would set standard prices for services so that owners do not feel they need to compete with each other and lower their prices and focus on their workers,” said Emily Marte, a nail-tech instructor at the New York Committee of Occupational Health and Safety.

The bill is currently in the Senate Labor Committee and advocates hope that it will be brought to the floor when voting is in session later this year.

About the author(s)

Heerea Rikhraj is currently a student at Columbia Graduate School of Journalism focused on reporting stories surrounding trauma, race and health.

Natalie Novakova is currently a student at Columbia Journalism Graduate School covering climate change, environment and labor.