Restaurants, warehouses and other sectors of the service industry have all been drastically affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Nail salons are no exception. As in other industries, the pandemic revealed the fragility of these existing systems and exacerbated existing problems — while creating new ones (Allure). Issues such as wage theft, exploitation, and unsafe working conditions in nail salons were exacerbated as salons closed due to regional mandates or had to reduce hours and capacity. With many nail salon workers now out of a job and excluded from federal aid, the ethics of manicures and labor conditions in the industry are more widely discussed (Allure). While individual actions and personal “boycotts” are an easy solution, organizations of nail salon workers are asking for direct action and solidarity to effect an industry-wide impact.
Nail salon workers are mostly Asian and Latinx immigrant women (Teen Vogue). Many face oppression due to language barriers or immigration status. Workers often must account for reliable childcare while serving as primary breadwinners for their families (Teen Vogue). Workers “have to work six-seven days a week, 10-12 hours a day” without breaks, said Glenda, a former nail salon worker who now organizes with the New York Nail Salon Workers Association (NYNSWA). And they still don’t know if at the end of the week they’ll make enough to make ends meet, to pay rent or to have food on the table” (Teen Vogue). And while the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program provided a limited amount of support for independent contractors like salon workers, as a federal program, it excluded undocumented immigrants. Without their steady source of income or aid, nail salon workers need solidarity from us all.
Luna Ranjit, co-founder of the New York Healthy Nail Salons Coalition, reminds us that swearing off regular manicures won’t help the manicurists who rely on their paychecks. “Instead, choose those nail salons that treat employees respectfully and value their—and your—safety” (Allure). Ranjit advocates for choosing salons with higher prices and tipping generously and directly in cash. “If a salon is charging $10 for a manicure, it’s virtually impossible for them to pay their workers minimum wage and still clear a profit. Higher prices don’t guarantee fair treatment, but it’s a good place to start” (Allure). Ranjit says that “frequent turnover of staff at a salon could be a sign of poor working conditions” while staying loyal to a nail technician might assure more working hours for them. The salon environment should also be clean and hazard-free. She advises that the overwhelming smell of chemicals or no visible ventilation systems are not a good sign for a healthy work environment (Allure).
As NYNSWA organizer Julie Xu puts it, “Definitely leave a big tip in cash, but at the same time, this isn’t a problem that can be solved by individual actors. The conditions we see and the issues we hear are industry-wide; it’s not something that a single client can tip away,” Individual actions to treat nail salon workers with dignity can make a significant difference, but as Xu goes on to say, “we can’t be thinking about changing one salon at a time, when we’re talking about an industry with more than 30,000 nail salon workers.” Through such campaigns as #HealthDignityJustice, NYNSWA hopes to achieve “public health, environmental and racial justice by working with the community, clients and salon owners”(Teen Vogue). Other worker-led organizations have begun to take shape across the country as well. In California, the California Healthy Nail Salons Coalition is focused on the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic which has seen many nail salon workers out of a job or further endangered (California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative). These organizations often hold informational seminars, collective actions and are always accepting donations to further their work (New York Nail Salon Workers Association).
As someone who regularly gets manicures, I know my nail technician’s name and how old her daughters are. We occasionally chat about my boy problems or lack of steady work. I hope we relate personally, but most importantly, I hope that in the future, her rights and health will be protected and advocated for by her fellow technicians, owners, and customers like myself. Getting an ethical manicure means acting respectfully and tipping generously, but it also means supporting worker power. That’s why I signed up for campaign updates and to volunteer with the NY Nail Salon Workers Association (Nail Techs United) to support salon workers fighting for better working conditions. Now, more than ever, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to disproportionately affect nail salon workers physically, financially, and mentally, it is essential to become involved in organizing for their rights.
Investigations have found that nail salon workers, who are mostly immigrant women, are often exploited and subjected to poor working conditions.
Education around the issue, making conscious decisions about which salons to frequent and getting involved with worker-led grassroots movements can make for more ethical manicures.