photo by Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times

Lovers come and go, but there are few relationships deeper and more sacred than the one between a woman and her nail tech. There is a level of intimacy between both women that isn’t easy to come by. You bare your flaws and insecurities to her weekly. She works tediously to make you feel your best. You vent to her about all of life’s drama. These are all the makings of a significantly close relationship. However, I’ve always felt that this was a one-sided relationship. Often times, we walk into a shop, bark orders, complain about the fumes, leave a paltry tip and leave without even asking, “How are you?”

The internet has been in an uproar after the release of the New York Times exposé of the grotesque side of this billion dollar beauty industry. Broken into two parts, the series focuses on both the faulty employment practices of these salons and the dire health conditions of its workers. Similar to a day laborer, Asian and Latino women are picked up in vans and taken to nail salons throughout the city to begin shifts upwards of 12-hours. Like in any organization, a hierarchy is in place that is dictated by both age and race. Since most (80% according to the article) of salons are Korean-owned, Korean manicurists are not only placed at more upscale salons, but are paid a higher wage. Non-Korean Asian and Latino techs are faced with employer verbal/mental abuse, relegated smaller salons in the outer boroughs and many don’t even receive New York’s required minimum wage of $8.75. Beginners start at $10 per day.

On top of the poor work conditions and barely there compensation (some workers go months without pay), nail techs are at an unlawful risk of health problems. Many reported to NYT that the combination of long work days in unventilated salons filled to the gills with harmful chemicals has been the cause of lung disease and a string of miscarriages. With legislation siding with cosmetic companies and misleading content labels for “natural” products that still contain harmful chemicals, our country is putting money over citizens yet again. Europe has banned over 1,300 chemicals from their cosmetics with more coming down the pipeline. The US is severely lagging on this front.

Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York is not taking this report lightly and pushed through an emergency task force to dismantle the system soon after it was published. These measures will ensure that workers are justly paid, educated on their legal rights, and working in safe environments. Since New York is oft positioned as the thought leader of this country, we can only hope that Gov. Cuomo’s task force aggressively and effectively attacks these problems causing a domino effect across the nation.

After becoming privy to the buffet of problems within the industry, many women are questioning if they should cancel their next appointment. The women employed at nail salons are already a susceptible class, so the last thing we want to do is leave them unemployed with little options to provide for their families. So how can we simultaneously practice self-care while ensuring the wellbeing of our nail tech? On a basic level, the simple answer is to talk to her. A fort of trust already surrounds your relationship, so ask her questions. In the case of a possible human trafficking situation, you can make an anonymous call (888.373.7888) that could save her life. Encourage your tech to wear a mask and gloves. Speak with the manager of the nailery in regards to proper ventilation. Money is at the root of this exploitation, so boycott brands like OPI and Estee Lauder that fought and won to kill a ban on the toxic DBP in California. Lastly, use your voice and your vote to protect the women that are instrumental to the most personal moments of our lives, oftentimes without a “thank you”.

This Mother’s Day, there were calls for initiatives like paid maternity leave, reproductive rights, and fair wage for women. I never thought that we would have to add quality of life to this list.

To hear from Sarah Maslin Nir, the journalist behind this series, listen to her chat with Brian Lehrer on WNYC below:


Also check out Sarah Nir’s follow up article “3 Ways to Be a Socially Conscious Nail Salon Customer”

1. Interview your manicurist.
Sitting across from a nail worker provides an opportunity for dialogue, a chance to ask how much the person doing your nails is paid, or if the worker was made to pay a fee to the employer to start working. Employers in New York are permitted to pay a worker who regularly receives tips slightly less than the state’s $8.75 hourly minimum wage, based on a complex calculation of how much the worker is making in tips. If your manicurist is being paid significantly less, the state Department of Labor runs a hotline where tips on suspected wage theft and other violations can be called in anonymously. The number is 1-888-469-7365.

2. Look around.
At one shop in SoHo, manicurists do something unusual when they walk in the door: They punch in with a timecard at a machine near the front desk. Such a device, which workers use to clock in and clock out, suggests that their work hours are being tabulated accurately by their employer, and that they are being paid overtime if necessary. But it is not a guarantee. Salons frequently keep a second set of books, according to salon owners, which lists people they are paying under the table.

3. Pay more.
The lower the price of the manicure, the greater the chance the workers are being deprived of wages they are due, according to Nicole Hallett, a lecturer at Yale Law School who has worked on nail salon wage cases. “We, as consumers, expect to have low prices and to be able to go to nail salons often, but the more prices are pushed down, the more employers are cutting costs,” Ms. Hallett said. “They’re cutting costs somewhere, and in many cases it’s coming out of the pockets of the workers themselves.”