The Dangerous, Low-Paid World of Nail Salons

Whether nail salon employees get good pay, time off and fair treatment at work currently varies widely depending on the salon they work for.

Sarah, a Vietnamese Californian (who asked to be identified only by her first name to avoid negative consequences at work), got into the nail salon industry six years ago so she could help ease her family’s financial problems. She was having trouble finding a job with her psychology degree, all while trying to support two children alongside her husband. So, she took a job as a manicurist as a “fast way of finding money,” she said.

In her current salon in West Hollywood, she makes a bit over minimum wage plus tips. “It gives me a chance to put food on my table and pay the bills,” she said. But it can get tough for her family to get by. “Sometimes we have to take out … a little loan here and there,” she said. “But pretty much, we’re surviving.”

Her current job also gives her some leniency in taking breaks and sick days when she needs them. Others haven’t been so generous. Past salons she worked in didn’t always pay her minimum wage or offer her sick days. Once, Sarah says, her daughter had an emergency doctor’s appointment and her boss said to her, “I know you have things to take care of, but we really need you today.”

So, she faced a dilemma. “I had a choice: either it’s my daughter or it’s my job,” Sarah said. She was luckily able to call her husband and have him take her. “Thank god my husband had time to take care of the girls.”

Even her current job comes with problems nail salon workers commonly face. In the hot summer season, when demand spikes, she may work intense and long hours. As the weather cools, those hours drop off, and now she’s working an average of about 30 a week. She just became an Uber driver to supplement her income.

The US government counted 126,300 nail salon workers across the country as of 2017, but that is almost certainly an undercount. In California and New York alone, there were 137,338 certified manicurists, according to a report released November 27 by the UCLA Labor Center on the nail salon industry across the country.

One thing is clear: it’s a booming industry. Total revenue for nail salons was $4.4 billion in 2015, 15 percent higher than the year before it. It’s forecast to reach $5.7 billion by 2020. Employment in the industry is also expected to grow 13 percent over the next decade.

And yet, the boom times often don’t filter down to the workers themselves. Nearly four out of five nail salon employees earn what amounts to two-thirds of median wages for full-time US workers. That’s a much higher share than the 33 percent rate for all industries in the country. Full-time nail salon employees earn less than half of what workers make in other industries on average: $9.06 an hour versus all others’ $20.18. “These findings are not unexpected; because the price of manicures and pedicures is so low, those providing the services are bound to earn low wages,” the report notes.

“A mani/pedi can be as low as $20,” said Lisa Fu, director of the California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative, which organizes nail salon workers and fights for workplace change by partnering with owners and pushing for new policies. “Think about how low that is. You wonder how much is the worker actually getting paid.”

Worse, many may not get the pay that they’re owed. Thirty percent are self-employed, including independent contractors, which is three times higher than the national average. Some may actually be independent, renting space in salons to serve their own clients, but “there are concerns that many manicurists are purposely misclassified to avoid labor laws and protections,” the report notes. Employers can shirk wage and hour obligations by classifying workers as independent contractors even if they should be labeled regular employees. Without employee status, salon workers “are being denied … paid sick leave, breaks, having their lunch break, workers comp,” Fu said. “Those are important benefits … that they deserve.”

Benefits are generally scarce. Nationally, 62 percent of workers get health insurance through work, but just 42 percent of nail salon workers do, according to the report. Over a quarter instead get coverage through public programs like Medicaid and Medicare.

In New York City, for example, a survey of Nepali workers in nail salons found they were being paid as little as $30 a day while working nine to 12 hours a day. Few got overtime and many couldn’t take breaks unless the flow of customers was slow. Over a quarter couldn’t take sick days, and those who did take them didn’t get paid. In California, 61 percent of Vietnamese salon employees reported making less than minimum wage and 89 percent were not paid overtime.

Despite the low pay and infrequent benefits, these jobs are not side hustles for the women who hold them. The vast majority of people in the industry are like Sarah: The typical worker is a foreign-born woman between the ages of 25 and 44, and she works full time, year-round. Workers’ wages don’t just support themselves, but others: nearly two-thirds have at least one child, while a third are heads of their households.

“As with any worker, a big part of what they’re trying to do is really provide for their children, provide for their families and make sure that they have a roof over their heads,” Fu said.

Many workers take pride in what they do, seeing it as an art. But they’re not paid on par with that quality of work. “We want this industry to treat workers with dignity and treat them with respect and … provide them with the wages where they can really flourish and succeed,” Fu said.

Then there are the health dangers. Sarah tries to take breaks when she can so she doesn’t get exposed to the fumes of the chemicals she works with for too long. She washes her hands frequently and uses gloves when they’re available. But she doesn’t always know what she’s being exposed to. “It’s a lot of things we come in contact with,” she said. “We need to be more aware of what we’re working with.”

Most commonly, nail salon employees are exposed to the “toxic trio”: toluene, formaldehyde and dibutyl phthalate, all of which are common in nail polish. Disinfectants like alcohol can also cause skin disease and infections. Workers take these chemicals in through inhalation, ingestion and skin absorption while they scrub feet and paint nails.

Chemical exposure often leads to health issues. Exposure to these chemicals may be associated with allergies, eye and skin irritation, eczema and reproductive problems. In some surveys of salon workers, more than 60 percent report suffering skin conditions. Another survey found that people who work with acrylic nails are more likely to have health problems, such as irritation, allergies, pain, coughing, nausea, difficulty breathing and miscarriage. A study in California found that rates of lung cancer were elevated among manicurists, while another in Canada found that workers who regularly applied nail polish had a tenfold greater risk of contracting lupus than other workers.

There’s also the regular wear and tear on the body of such physical work: sitting in uncomfortable postures for long periods of time often leaves workers with strain and fatigue, and many report hand, neck, lower back, shoulder and wrist pain.

Yet regulation of these chemicals or of workplace practices is scarce, and many workers fear speaking out. There are “a lot of barriers, including language barriers, cultural barriers, fear of retaliation,” Fu said, as well as “mistrust of the government.” Given that immigrants dominate the workforce, those with uncertain status may fear going public.

But policy makers are taking notice. One success story was the passage of a bill in California this year that requires chemicals used by salon workers to come with the same ingredient labels that consumer cosmetic products have. Another bill passed by the state in 2016 required salons to post signs in workers’ languages about their rights. “It’s like a first step — just because there’s a sign up doesn’t mean the salon is going to make the changes,” Fu pointed out. The state also has a Healthy Nail Salon Recognition Program, created by a bill passed in 2016, which certifies and promotes salons that commit to safe practices.

New York passed its own reforms after The New York Times published an in-depth investigation into the industry. These reforms included new state regulations for safety and labor standards and its own New York Healthy Salons Coalition to recognize businesses that follow best practices. As part of that coalition, a worker center named Adhikaar has helped train more than 1,000 workers about their health and rights.

But more needs to be done. “There are a lot of cultural shifts that need to happen that will take time,” Fu said. To get there, it will require “a really comprehensive approach through partnerships with government agencies, through continual outreach and education to the community—not just to workers, but also to employers.”