A manicure is one of the few cosmetic indulgences an average working woman in New York can afford. Dropping $12 for a silk wrap in Queens can put a touch of instant glamour on your fingertips.
But there’s a reason getting your nails done is cheap: Your manicurist is earning meager wages.
The vast majority of nail salon workers have experienced some form of labor abuse.
Now workers are organizing to fix the broken labor laws they say perpetuate the nail salon industry’s culture of exploitation.
A 2018 national study on nail salon workers by the University of California-Los Angeles Labor Center found there were some 7,000 nail salons and nearly 17,000 workers across New York State, heavily concentrated in New York City. Virtually every city neighborhood is festooned with compact storefronts where nail technicians—mostly women and immigrants—will soak, buff, and polish your finger or toenails for as little as the cost of three lattes.
The vast majority of nail salon workers have experienced some form of labor abuse, according to a newly released report by the New York Nail Salon Workers Association. The survey of workers across the New York City region found that about eight in ten respondents reported experiencing wage theft—earning less than what they are supposed to be paid by their employer. More than half were paid a flat daily or weekly rate, usually only about $80 to $100 a day. Many did not even know they were entitled to a minimum wage.
Yanelia, a worker quoted in the report, said that in her fourteen years as a nail tech, “There were many times when my pay didn’t reach the minimum wage, but I accepted it because I didn’t know how much the minimum wage was, and I thought the way they were paying me was normal.”
Nail salon wages have improved somewhat, labor advocates say, following a 2015 New York Times exposé on abusive and unsafe working conditions within the industry. The state passed a package of reforms including new licensing rules and beefed-up requirements for personal protective gear and safety training to deal with toxic chemical exposures on the job. Eventually, 652 workers won about $2 million in backpay and damages.
But Clara Wheatley-Schaller, a co-author of the new report, says in an interview that despite the reforms of recent years, “what we’re still really seeing is that the industry is on a race to the bottom. And for owners to compete and to stay in business, they’re doing it on the backs of their workers.”
The average amount sucked from workers’ take-home pay due to wage theft was $181 per week, or $9,412 per year, the report found. Nail technicians who worked for tips were subject to the subminimum wage system.
A full-time manicurist would earn a base wage of just $11.35 per hour for business with eleven or more employees—compared to $15 an hour for regular workers in New York City—on the assumption that tips would make up the difference. But workers reported that tips averaged only about $3.33 per hour, and bosses could easily low-ball the wages they were owed.
New York Governor Andew Cuomo recently announced plans to phase out the tipped minimum wage, but it’s unclear how much tweaking the base wage will help. According to the survey, nearly 80 percent of nail salon workers were not even earning the subminimum wage, so many bosses clearly aren’t complying with any wage standard.
Another way that bosses undercut workers’ wages is by skimping on rest breaks, overtime, and time off.
Another way that bosses undercut workers’ wages is by skimping on rest breaks, overtime, and time off. Many nail salon workers surveyed were not provided the legally mandated rest and meal breaks throughout their shifts. The UCLA Labor Center study found that language barriers and fears of being reported to immigration authorities (nearly two-thirds of New York State nail salon workers are Chinese, Korean, or Vietnamese-born), along with economic insecurity, deter workers from reporting labor abuses.
Sonia Morales, a fifteen-year nail tech who spoke at a recent press conference, recalled what happened when she had tried to confront her boss to demand a lunch break for herself and her coworkers.
“One day I decided to speak up and say, ‘No. You need to respect the fact that I need to eat, and have this right.’ . . . I told her it’s not fair, I want to eat, and she started to yell and say, ‘Well if you don’t like it, you can leave.’ ”
Morales says the owner threatened to call the police if she did not leave. She managed to collect her last wages before being dismissed, but has since gone on to work at a salon where she is also poorly paid, earning only a percentage of each service she provides.
To stop bosses from cheating workers, Morales says, “what we need are not just laws that are written in the books. We need laws that actually ensure that there’s compliance, that actually offer support for workers when owners don’t want to do the right thing.”
Because labor law enforcement remains a complaint-driven system, Wheatley-Schaller says, “if that compliance and enforcement is all on the worker to report [to state labor authorities], then you’re not going to see industry-wide change.”
In fact, the survey revealed that as the cost of services goes down, wage theft goes up. The establishments with the lowest manicure price—$10 or less—were associated with the highest rates of wage theft, more than $150 per week. In other words, the tighter the employer’s margin on each service, the more likely it is to dig into workers’ pockets to maintain profits.
Perhaps the connection between low prices and wage theft reflects the beauty industry’s complex culture of exploitation. For many Asian immigrant entrepreneurs, starting a nail salon is a path to the middle class, and the 2015 clampdown led to an uproar from immigrant communities, which felt they were being unfairly targeted by discriminatory regulations.
But regulating an industry that offers a low-cost beauty service and competes heavily on price is difficult because everyone is hustling; small business owners and workers are tethered to a market with paper thin margins and rock-bottom wages.
The New York Nail Salon Workers Association wants to stop exploitation in the nail salon industry from top to bottom, starting with a bill introduced in the New York State Assembly on March 4. It would require all nail salon owners to show continuous compliance with labor, health, and safety laws—including regularly reporting their payroll records in order to renew their licenses—and require training on safety and labor law for bosses and workers.
Having a system in place to ensure that nail salons comply with labor laws would shift the responsibility of maintaining standards onto bosses, instead of leaving workers to complain.
Otherwise, nail salon owners may always be a step ahead of their workers.
At the press conference, nail tech Miriam Reyes said she used to earn about $200 to $300 per week at Envy, a prominent local nail salon chain. But her salon suddenly closed in early January—following a spate of protests about poor working conditions led by the workers association. (Envy has publicly denied charges of wage theft and settled a lawsuit alleging labor abuses brought in 2013.)
Envy will move on—there are always women willing to pay for a super-cheap mani-pedi—but Reyes said she had to start from scratch, without getting her last few days of pay. “It’s not fair for the business to keep exploiting workers and keep doing business,” she said. “At the end of the day, we all are human. We all are out here trying to survive.”