Nice Nails, Awful Jobs

by | May 8, 2015 | Gender Discrimination, Harassment

In New York City, nail salons are ubiquitous, and many women who live or work in the City routinely partake in the affordable luxury of cheap manicures.  But a shocking exposé by the New York Times (posted here and here) shows that cheap manicures come at a very high price for the women who toil in New York City’s nail salons.  According to the Times, the female, immigrant workers in New York City nail salons are being exploited day in, day out by abusive, illegal, and unsafe work practices.  Here are some of the major findings detailed in the New York Times investigation:

Flagrant Wage-and-Hour Violations.  New York City nail salons are openly violating the minimum wage and overtime laws that are designed to protect the most vulnerable workers.  Many salons, according to the New York Times, pay no wages at all to their initial hires: salon owners actually charge workers “training fees” of $100 to $200 simply to get a job, and then the owners pay the workers nothing for weeks or months “in a kind of unpaid apprenticeship.”

When workers finally begin earning wages, the vast majority earn less than the minimum wage.  The New York Times reports: “Asian-language newspapers are rife with classified ads listing manicurist jobs paying so little the daily wage can at first glance appear to be a typo,” such as one salon’s advertisement for a position paying $10 per day.  One salon owner told the Times that a wage of just $35 a day was “very good.”  In poorer neighborhoods, some salon workers receive no base salary at all – just a commission.  Salons also ignore the overtime laws that mandate extra pay for more than 40 hours a week of work: according to the New York Times, “Overtime pay is almost unheard-of in the industry, even though workers routinely work up to 12 hours a day, six or even seven days a week.”

Discrimination Based on National Origin and Race.  The New York Times found “a rigid racial and ethnic caste system” in New York City’s nail salon industry, where 70 to 80 percent of salons are Korean-owned.  Korean workers receive the most favorable treatment, while “Chinese workers occupy the next rung in the hierarchy; Hispanics and other non-Asians are at the bottom.”  The hierarchy dictates how much workers get paid, with Korean workers reportedly earning at least 15 to 25% more than their non-Korean counterparts and sometimes much more.  The hierarchy also impacts which workers get the best (and worst) job assignments: undesirable tasks almost always go to non-Korean workers.  Bias is often overt: in an interview, one salon owner openly voiced her prejudice against Hispanic workers.

Unlicensed Workers.  Manicurists are required to have licenses, but the New York Times found many manicurists were working without licenses or with licenses that have been fabricated.  Laws requiring licenses are easily evaded by salon owners: when investigators descended on one salon, the owner sent away the unlicensed workers, but they resumed work as soon as the investigators left.

Weak Enforcement of Labor Laws.  In New York City’s nail salon industry, enforcement of labor laws is lax.  It was only after the New York Times asked the New York State Labor Department about its enforcement record with the industry that the agency conducted its first nail salon sweep ever.  That sweep revealed 116 wage violations in just 29 salons.  In fact, when the Department actually investigates salons, approximately 80% of the time it finds that workers have been unpaid or underpaid.

Customers should think long and hard about whether they are complicit in these abuses.  New York City manicures are extremely cheap by national standards: a Manhattan manicure costs an average of $10.50 – not much higher than it cost nearly twenty years ago and only about half of the current national average of $19.54.  As Nicole Hallett of Yale Law School tells us: “You can be assured, if you go to a place with rock-bottom prices, [the] chances are the workers’ wages are being stolen.”

UPDATE: Read the second part of this blog post.