NY fights nail salon abuses

A manicurist wears a mask at a nail salon in New York.
A manicurist wears a mask at a nail salon in New York. NYT

Many manicurists in New York say life has improved, in tangible and intangible ways, in the two months after a New York Times investigation into labor abuses at nail salons and the dangers posed by the chemicals manicurists work with.

There have been major shifts in the industry. A multiagency task force set up by the administration of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has inspected 755 salons, issuing 1,799 violations, according to state officials. At a ceremony Thursday, Cuomo signed into law a measure that overhauls how the industry is licensed and how bad actors are punished.

Most concretely, for some, compensation has gone up.

Peng Xu, a Long Island manicurist whose pay went from $6 to $8 an hour, said he has noticed an array of changes at his salon, including workers’ wearing of gloves, masks and sometimes even goggles.

“Our salary is getting close to the standard level of minimum wage,” he added. “And it feels good.”

But a survey of 100 Manhattan nail salons, as well as interviews with more than a dozen workers and owners in and around New York, suggests changes across the industry have been uneven.

More than 40 percent of the salons surveyed by The Times did not have on display the state’s newly required workers’ bill of rights, which outlines information on minimum wage and where employees can go for labor complaints.

Under newly issued state rules, gloves must now be worn by manicurists when they are handling things like cotton balls soaked in nail polish remover, and goggles when they pour acetone and other chemicals.

Respirator masks - not the paper hospital-style mask that is commonly seen and is considered ineffective at combating chemical exposure - must be made available for workers to use when buffing or filing nails, or when sculpting acrylic nails. But the survey found gloves being used at just 15 percent of salons. When The Times observed masks in use at about two dozen salons, just three of them were employing the required respirator-style ones.

But in some corners of the city, attempts to stamp out exploitation have led to some unintended consequences. At Flower Nail & Spa on the Upper East Side, workers said they cheered at first when their boss began to let them leave at closing time, instead of squeezing in latecomers for an evening manicure.

What initially seemed like a boon, however, soon emerged as something else. Manicurists are limited now to working just four days in what workers say appears be a move by their employer to avoid violating labor laws that require extra fees for overtime hours. So, these days, while they may make it home for dinner, some manicurists are taking on second jobs.

“I know the article tried to help us to work less, with higher pay and get good benefits, from good owners,” said an employee who works at Flower Nail and a second salon in Westchester, and who declined to give her name. “But for some employees it created a worse situation.”

Flower’s owner did not respond to a request for comment.

Notably, the survey, which was similar to one conducted a year ago, also showed that prices of manicures and pedicures had remained largely unchanged. In other words, it does not appear that owners are increasing prices so they can pay their workers more.

State regulators, however, have been clamping down on the industry. Besides the several hundred inspections that have been conducted by the new state task force, the Labor Department has opened investigations in response to 63 complaints of unpaid or underpaid workers in the last month. In the past, the department typically opened only two or three dozen nail salon cases a year across the state in response to complaints.

The task force’s random inspections are continuing, officials said. Before The Times’ investigation, there had been only one previous state sweep of nail salons, which occurred last year and included raids of 29 businesses. The sweep took place a month after The Times inquired about the Labor Department’s enforcement record on salons.

But some workers have bridled at the new rules. Some workers and bosses say the protective gear is uncomfortable and a turnoff to customers. Several said they had been storing the equipment in the drawers of their manicure tables, with no intention of actually using it, just in case an inspector dropped in. Mikyoung Lee, 46, who manages Mforu Nails, said she did not believe the gear was even necessary.

“A large part of this is about getting to the workers, that they get the information and understand that these resources are available to them,” said Alphonso B. David, the governor’s counsel. “That’s one of the biggest challenges.”