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The manicures may be pretty, but the nail salon industry is looking pretty rough, workers and advocates say.
“Other than getting a wage, we really don’t have any other protection,” said Shweta Thakali, who has worked as a nail salon technician for the past 13 years. “Only a few places offer minimum wage. This is why the Nail Salon Minimum Standards Council Act is important.”
A coalition of unions and labor advocates sent a letter Wednesday to Governor Kathy Hochul and state legislators calling on them to pass the bill, which would establish a council made up of nail salon workers, salon owners and government representatives to recommend minimum wages and safety standards for the industry.
Nail salon workers, about 85 percent of whom are women and 90 percent are foreign-born, are frequently subjected to minimum wage and overtime violations. The New York Nail Salon Workers Association has also estimated that 46 percent of workers in the industry were wrongly considered independent contractors.
The lack of lunch breaks is also an issue.
“For example, [the salon owners] will cut your pay for an hour for your lunch break. Then 20 minutes in, they’ll say ‘Come back to work, we’re busy’ — but they’ll still cut your pay for that hour,” Thakali told The Chief in Nepali through an interpreter.
Amelia DeJesus, who has worked in nail salons for 18 years, depends on her income to raise her family.
“Speaking on behalf of many others, many mothers can’t spend time with their kids because we report to work at a specific time but we don’t get out at a specific time. And we don’t get paid overtime,” she said through a Spanish interpreter. “That’s why we’re raising our voices to be heard and be paid a dignified wage.”
Safety also a concern
Nail salon workers also typically don’t have paid time off or benefits. “In this industry, it seems like there’s no future — there’s no retirement,” Thakali said. "People ask 'Why don't you go to the next salon?' But the issue is that if you go to another salon, it's the same issue."
The workers also cited safety concerns: although they worked with toxic chemicals, they weren’t always provided with personal protective equipment. Toxic chemicals such as formaldehyde and toluene are commonly used in nail products and have been linked to serious long-term health effects such as cognitive development issues, cancer and reproductive harm. Nail techs were more likely to experience complications during pregnancy and having children with birth defects, a survey conducted last year by the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health found.
There have been some improvements in the industry: a 2016 state law requiring nail salons to install adequate systems finally took effect this past October.
But DeJesus noted that not every salon has ventilation yet. “Even though we love our jobs, the owners don’t abide by what’s already in place,” she said.
Several workers met with legislators in Albany Wednesday to voice their concerns.
The New York State Nurses Association, 32BJ SEIU, the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union and Teamsters Joint Council 16 were among the unions urging legislators to pass the bill, which was sponsored by Senator Jessica Ramos. Labor activist groups including Coalition for Economic Justice, the Urban Justice Center’s Street Vendor Project and ALIGN also backed the effort.
“These kinds of exploitative and unsafe working conditions should never be the norm in any industry,” the letter stated. “The nail salon industry must undergo systemic change, and its business model cannot depend on cutting corners on workers’ rights. New York State has the power to create a just and sustainable nail salon industry through the Nail Salon Minimum Standards Council Act.”
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