Nice Nails, Awful Jobs: Part 2

by | May 20, 2016 | Gender Discrimination, Harassment

Nail salons may offer a dose of beauty, glamor, and pampering to their customers. However, by and large, nail salons take on a much uglier look once you scrape away the polished facade and examine the experiences of the largely female, immigrant workforce that toils away there.

Last year, the New York Times ran a twopart investigative series that cast a spotlight on the “rampant exploitation” and health hazards within the nail salon industry. Following the release of the series, my colleague, Alexandra Harwin, provided a detailed summary of the Times’ key investigative findings. To re-cap, in “The Price of Nice Nails,” the New York Times reported that many New York City nail salons were flagrantly violating minimum wage and overtime laws, with some even charging new employees “training fees” of $100 to $200 to obtain a job and then paying these workers nothing over the span of weeks or months “in a kind of unpaid apprenticeship.” According to the New York Times, when nail salon workers did earn a wage, the vast majority received less than minimum wage. Moreover, the Times reported that “[o]vertime 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.” Compounding this problem has been the lax enforcement of labor laws. The Times reported that the New York State Labor Department had typically opened only two or three dozen nail salon cases a year within the entire state, yet there were over 3,600 nail salons in the state of New York as of 2012.

In a subsequent article, entitled “Perfect Nails, Poisoned Workers,” the New York Times detailed the disturbing health hazards associated with providing manicures and pedicures. In particular, the article called attention to the prevalence of respiratory illnesses and skin disorders among nail salon workers and noted that some of the chemicals present in nail products have been tied to abnormal fetal development, miscarriages, and other harm to reproductive health, while other chemicals are known carcinogens.

In the year since the New York Times ran its expose, several steps have been taken to safeguard nail workers’ rights and address the rampant wage theft and health hazards in the industry. Almost immediately after the New York Times ran its coverage, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo enacted emergency measures and created a multi-agency Enforcement Task Force to combat abuses within the nail industry. Then, in July 2015, Governor Cuomo signed legislation aimed at protecting New York nail salon workers.

As a result of these reforms, nail salon owners are now required to provide the following equipment to workers at no cost: (1) a properly fitting respirator; (2) protective gloves; and (3) protective eye equipment. Under the new reforms, workers have the right to access and use a respirator while buffing or filing nails or while handling acrylic powder. They also have the right to access and wear protective gloves and eye equipment while handling potentially hazardous chemicals (based on this list, that covers standard nail polish and polish remover).

Additionally, nail salon owners are now required to post a “Bill of Rights” in a place that is easily visible to both workers and customers. The Bill of Rights makes clear that workers must be paid for every hour worked, even if they are paid “on commission” or are not experienced, and sets forth the minimum wage that workers should receive based on whether or not they earn tips. The Bill also reminds workers of the safety equipment that owners must provide and states that employers should never “take your tips or wages,” “pay you less than minimum wage,” “make you pay for a job or training, as punishment or [for] any other reason,” “punish you in ANY way for complaining about your wages or working conditions,” among other things. Significantly, the Bill of Rights reminds workers that these rights apply regardless of immigration status and provides the number of the Task Force Hotline (888-466-7365) as a resource for information or help.

Under the new reforms, nail salon owners are also required to secure a wage bond, which functions as a form of insurance to hold employers accountable and ensure that workers who experience wage theft are actually able to recover their lost pay. As Governor Cuomo explained in a statement about the wage bond requirement, “Requiring owners to secure a wage bond will help ensure workers are paid what they are legally owed and that businesses have the funds they need to meet their financial obligations.”  Nail salon owners who have not secured wage bonds face steep penalties and fines, including the possible closure of their businesses.

While these reforms are a promising start, it remains to be seen how effective they will be in actually protecting nail salon workers from exploitation and workplace hazards When I walked down the string of nail salons in my neighborhood last night, I rarely spotted a worker wearing a protective mask and I did not notice any workers with protective eye equipment. And while there has been a dramatic increase in investigations of nail salons in the wake of the Times expose, the Times recently noted that such investigations have come with a host of hurdles, among them that roughly 85 percent of the salons investigated did not maintain proper payroll records, which is itself a state law violation, and that workers understandably fear reprisals for speaking with inspectors.

The good news is that there are now laws on the books and there is a host of advocacy organizations that are tirelessly working to promote nail salon workers’ rights—AdhikaarNational Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum, and the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health stand out as examples. Thanks to their advocacy and the extensive news coverage from this past year, there is also a heightened awareness among consumers regarding the abuses in the nail salon industry. For consumers, the same admonition quoted in last year’s post remains true: “You can be assured, if you go to a place with rock-bottom prices, [the] chances are the workers’ wages are being stolen.”