Sammy Nickalls
May 07, 2015 12:31 pm

If you get manicures and pedicures on the reg, it’s a really great feeling to be able to lean back, relax, and get pampered. Perhaps that’s why manicures and pedicures have become so vastly popular over the past several decades: there are over 17,000 nail salons in the United States, and the number of salons in New York City alone has more than tripled in merely a decade and a half, according to the New York Times.

Being able to beautify your fingers and toes, then tip your nail artist and head out, seems like the simplest of luxuries. But a New York Times piece has found that the price of having fabulous nails is a lot steeper than $50. And no, you’re not paying that price: manicurists are. Today, in her piece entitled “The Price Of Nice Nails,” columnist Sarah Maslin Nir uncovered the atrocious working conditions New York manicurists have to endure.

Nir interviewed over 150 nail salon workers and owners for the piece, and the results were grim at best. Here are the brutal facts about exploitation in the nail industry.

Beginning manicurists are forced to work for tips alone.

In almost any salon in the New York area, Nir notes, beginning manicurists make a living exclusively off of tips until they prove themselves skilled enough to “merit” a wage. Nir followed one manicurist, 20-year-old Jing Ren, who was only paid by her employer after three full months. Until then, she was forced to live off her meager tips alone.

In fact, these employers even charge their beginning manicurists to work there.

Most must fork over $100 to $200 to the owners, though the fee can be even more—knowing that they won’t get paid for the next several months. Owners claim that these are “deposits” so that workers won’t leave with their new skills, but they’re rarely paid back.

When they finally are paid, it’s often a cripplingly low wage.

Jing Ren is paid $30 a day, and she’s not alone: a vast majority of the workers interviewed reported being paid less than minimum wage. According to Nir, “Asian-language newspapers are rife with classified ads listing manicurist jobs paying so little the daily wage can at first glance appear to be a typo. Ads in Chinese in both Sing Tao Daily and World Journal for NYC Nail Spa, a second-story salon on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, advertised a starting wage of $10 a day. The rate was confirmed by several workers.”

All but three of the workers Nir interviewed were either paid less than minimum wage or had their wages withheld in some illegal way, such as never being paid overtime. Some are paid $1.50 an hour, according to the piece. Others are paid nothing at all on slow days, but are charged to drink water. When the New York State Labor Department conducted its “first nail salon sweep ever” last year, it found 116 wage violations in 29 salons alone.

More experienced workers tend to get paid approximately $70 or $80 a day, but with more experience comes longer hours, and it still often amounts to considerably less than minimum wage, according to the piece.

Many salon workers have their wages determined by their race.

“Nail salons are governed by their own rituals and mores, a hidden world behind the glass exteriors and cute corner shops,” writes Nir. “In it, a rigid racial and ethnic caste system reigns in modern-day New York City, dictating not only pay but also how workers are treated.”

Those of Korean descent earn approximately twice as much as other salon workers; next, Chinese workers, followed by Hispanic and other non-Asian workers, according to Nir. In fact, Korean workers, “particularly if they are youthful or attractive,” have their pick of the best jobs in the salon industry.

The power a salon owner has over a worker is practically unlimited.

“Tips or wages are often skimmed or never delivered, or deducted as punishment for things like spilled bottles of polish,” writes Nir. “At her Harlem salon, Ms. Cacho said she and her colleagues had to buy new clothes in whatever color the manager decided was fashionable that week. Cameras are regularly hidden in salons, piping live feeds directly to owners’ smartphones and tablets.”

One woman, named Qing Lin, accidentally splashed nail polish on a customer’s Prada sandal. The customer demanded compensation. . . and the $270 came directly out of Lin’s pay. She was subsequently fired. “I am worth less than a shoe,” she told Nir.

The less you pay, the more likely salon workers are being mistreated.

“You can be assured, if you go to a place with rock-bottom prices, that chances are the workers wages’ are being stolen,” Nicole Hallett, Yale Law lecturer who has worked on salon wage theft cases, told NYT. “The costs are borne by the low-wage workers who are doing your nails.” This is especially true in Manhattan, where the average cost of a manicure is approximately $10.50—about half the price of the national average.

To get more informed on the atrocities and exploitation in the salon industry, read the full New York Times piece here. Our hearts are with the manicurists that have had to witness and experience so much cruelty.

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