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Nail Salons: Polishing Over a Chipped Foundation

Anatomy of a nail salon: aromatic chemicals circulate in small rooms. Gleaming rows of nail polish bottles stretch in rainbows along the walls. Feet wade under warm gurgling water. While the nail salon might evoke to many an image of luxury and respite, few acknowledge the kneeling rows of employees, bent over hands and feet for hours on end. These employees may only be receiving 3 dollars an hour for their work, if anything at all. As the price of a manicure sinks further, the employees’ wages often sink with it. 

The beauty industry has benefited tremendously from the skyrocketing popularity of manicures over the past few decades, which have transitioned from a rare luxury to a grooming staple for many Americans. This likely stems from a combination of the rise of self-care culture and the astoundingly low prices now associated with manicures and pedicures, typically between 10 and 20 dollars

But the low cost isn’t a happy accident. A 2015 exposee of the nail salon industry by The New York Times found that of the 150 manicurists interviewed, the majority were paid below minimum wage. As our society has moved further towards a culture of self-care and self-reward, some of the very same people who provide us these services are unable to do the same for themselves. 

A UCLA study shares that 78% of nail salon workers are low-wage workers, more than double the national rate of 33%. For many, this isn’t only a low wage, but an illegally low wage. Many nail salon jobs – such as in New York and Boston – are “tip-based jobs” (like waitstaff and other service jobs) that allow employers to pay employees below minimum wage. Bosses are expected to bring the wage up to minimum if the employees don’t make enough tips, but rarely do – none of the employees interviewed by The New York Times reported having received this compensation, or overtime payment. 

Employees frequently have to pay an upfront fee of 100 to 200 dollars to be “trained” for the job. For the first several months they may receive no salary at all, until they are deemed “promising” enough for the job or are fired, never having earned a dollar in wages. 

These financial burdens are only exacerbated by the costs accumulated from the environmental hazards of working in a nail salon. Toxic chemicals such as acetone and DBP are linked to miscarriages, chronic asthma, and skin issues among employees. Working in a nail salon is so chemical-dense that scientists have drawn comparisons to working in an oil refinery, and nail workers are three times more likely than those not in the industry to get asthma.

Female immigrants overwhelmingly comprise the nail salon labor force: 81% of nail salon workers are women, and 79% are born outside of the US. Women of color – primarily Vietnamese, Korean, Chinese, Latinx, Nepali, and Tibetan women – largely shoulder the burden of environmental hazards and poor labor practices in nail salons.

Outdated legislation, language barriers, and lack of documentation add to existing hurdles for the people in the dust masks, who often face a triple plight of labor rights issues, human rights issues, and environmental justice issues. 

Current protections don’t suffice to protect these workers by failing to take these nuances into account. Laws and workplace standards as they stand are flawed and outdated beyond functionality. On a federal level, many US occupational safety standards have not been updated in 50 years. OSHA has acknowledged its permissible exposure limits as “outdated and inadequate for ensuring protection of worker health”. The federal law regulating safety in the cosmetics industry is more than 75 years old. Five years after The New York Times rattled the cultural landscape with its exposee, little in the nail salon industry has improved

The powerful influence of the cosmetology industry shoulders much of this blame. Cosmetics companies frequently deem their products chemical-free (from formaldehyde, for example) but upon being tested, scientists find significant amounts of the chemical still present. The “toxic trio” of dibutyl phthalate (DBP), toluene, and formaldehyde remain present in many nail products; the regulation and oversight of product-making is left to the cosmetic companies themselves. They are not required to share safety information with the FDA. A proposed ban of DBP was met with half a million dollars from the cosmetics industry put towards not passing it – and it didn’t pass. Finally, the Cosmetic Ingredient Review, intended to assess the safety of cosmetic products, is financed entirely by the cosmetics industry’s lobbying group. 

All of these environmental injustices and labor rights violations are difficult for workers to contend with themselves, as many workers in nail salons are undocumented and are thus unable to ask for fair wages or make reports without being put at risk. Salon workers can’t win against massive corporations with hefty political influence; this requires lawmakers and beauty companies themselves to do the right thing. Until legislation is updated to reflect current salon worker realities, the employees will continue to fall through the cracks.

Today, the coronavirus is smothering salon industry workers that were already struggling to breathe. Nail salons were hit through the supply chain before the virus entered the United States. The rise in xenophobia only added to the drop in clientele for salons, which are primarily staffed by immigrant women of Asian descent, further denting their already precarious financial situations. 

Before the shutdowns, many nail salon employees were forced to choose between their only means of making money and their health, as salon work is incompatible with social distancing. Then, as the virus progressed, the cancellations flooded in; the phones went quiet. The government-mandated closures in late March shut the doors of nail salons across the country. For many salon employees, this meant not a cent coming into their hands without work. 

While owners of salons apply for federal loans and lay off employees, an underground market for personal care workers has sprouted in response to the economic toll. Many nail salon workers have begun visiting the homes of both familiar clients and strangers to exchange a sense of normalcy for a paycheck. For the workers, this requires both breaking the law and risking their personal health; an anxiety-inducing blend, but without an income source, they don’t have a choice – and choosing their work over their health is already a side they’ve been forced to take before the virus ever emerged.

The beauty and wellness industry has hypocritically degraded the self-confidence and livelihoods of its providers while promoting it for clients. Protections as they stand can do little to combat this in the face of complications such as a worker’s documentation status or corporate will to block chemical bans. And what’s on the front of the bottle matters: it impacts the livelihood of the worker opening it. Legal protections should be responsible for holding nail polish companies accountable for mislabeling their toxins. Self-care is important, but so is taking care of each other.

Image via Flickr