The Human Cost of Getting Your Nails Done at a Nail Salon

By Michelle Noehren, Age 33

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Photo Credit: Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times

Back in May of this year I read The Price of Nice Nails in the NY Times and I’ve never been able to step foot in a nail salon again.

I didn’t go to the salon very much before, but I had started to bring my 4-year-old because she liked the experience and thought the whole thing was amusing. However after reading how nail salon workers are treated, I just couldn’t financially contribute to an industry rampant with what I believe are human rights violations.

The Times article (which is REALLY worth the read) talks about what they found after interviewing 100 nail salon workers. Some of the most appalling highlights:

  • Salon owners often charge a fee to new workers. These workers are already very low-income so having to pay a fee to work is absolutely outrageous.
  • There is often an unpaid “apprenticeship” period for new workers that can last weeks or months.
  • The VAST majority of workers are paid below the minimum wage yet work at least 10 hours a day with no breaks.
  • Workers are often forced to live together in small apartments.

These workers are being exploited and treated horribly. Low pay, sometimes as low as $3/hour, working long hours without overtime pay, being forced to work unpaid when they first begin and being forced to live in filthy, cramped apartments or even basements are just the tip of the iceberg. They also face serious health consequences due to the chemicals they are frequently exposed to and because most nail salon workers speak limited English they are even more vulnerable to abuse.

Unfortunately this is not just a problem in New York. It’s a problem everywhere, including Connecticut.

Last week I attended a meeting of the Trafficking in Persons Council at the Legislative Office Building. The CT Department of Labor was scheduled to reveal details of a recent nail salon raid they did in our state and I was really curious to learn about what they found.

As I sat there listening to two DOL investigators reveal what they found in 25 Connecticut nail salons I think I actually made a gasping noise in my seat. The finding that struck me the most is that they found 120 workers that were off the books. ONE HUNDRED AND TWENTY human beings that these businesses were not counting as employees. ONE HUNDRED AND TWENTY human beings with absolutely no rights, living a life of fear.

I keep wondering just how large this problem is. If they found 120 people that aren’t on the books in just 25 nail salons, how many people state-wide does that equal? There are well over 1,000 nail salons in CT. The magnitude of this blows my mind. Who is helping these workers, the majority of whom are women (and young women)? Who is holding these salon owners accountable? No one, at least not until CT DOL decided to being investigating a few months ago.

Other startling findings from the CT DOL raid:

  • Many workers are being bused in from NY (this is labor trafficking)
  • $300/week is the average pay for a 56-65 hour work week
  • Many salon owners keep the tips. KEEP THE TIPS!
  • Often employers have their workers live in apartments together, near the salons, so they can open early and stay open late. These workers have to pay rent.
  • Workers have ZERO knowledge about the impact of the chemicals they work with (which is especially horrifying for salon workers that are pregnant)

As you can see, the human cost of getting your nails done is high. I’m glad to know that our state is moving in the direction of holding these salons accountable but I fear that not enough is being done to protect the workers.

As consumers we have a choice. If this issue bothers you as much as it bothers me, or even if there’s just a little part of you that wonders if your salon treats their employees like this, you do have the power to do something. Ask your manicurist if she keeps her tips and is paid adequately. Let salons know that you won’t give them your business if they don’t treat their employees like human beings, deserving of fair pay and a safe work environment.

Or if you want to go the route that I did, check out Jamberry nails and just do them yourself.

For more information about CT DOl’s findings, you can watch this video on CTN.

Young Women Rising encourages Connecticut women ages 18-35 to raise their voices about issues they care about. Each writer speaks for herself as an individual and Young Women Rising as a whole does not intend to endorse the views of any particular writer. If you’re interested in submitting a guest piece please contact us at Michelle.Noehren@cga.ct.gov. 

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