Today the New York Times published the first of a two-part investigative piece on the labor conditions of nail salon workers. For anyone who’s ever ducked into a tiny shop for a $10 manicure, the findings were unsettling:
“The New York Times interviewed more than 150 nail salon workers and owners, in four languages, and found that a vast majority of workers are paid below minimum wage; sometimes they are not even paid. Workers endure all manner of humiliation, including having their tips docked as punishment for minor transgressions, constant video monitoring by owners, even physical abuse. Employers are rarely punished for labor and other violations.”
The article has left a lot of women who frequent nail salons for inexpensive manicures feeling both guilty and unsure of how best to respond to the report of abuses. So, what can you do about it? We have a few bits of advice:
1. Tip well and in cash.
According to the Times, “Nail salon workers are generally considered “tipped workers” under state and federal labor laws.” That means that salon owners can pay employees less than minimum wage with the expectation that the customer will make up the gap in pay by offering a gratuity. But, in the case of an inexpensive manicure, a standard 20% tip may only shake out to two or three dollars. So tip generously, preferably in cash directly to the technician, which will make it more likely that that money will end up in his or her wallet, rather than being pocketed or skimmed by the salon owner. (According to US News & World Reports, the median salary of a nail technician is only $19,340 annually and the lowest paid in the industry take home under $16,000 annually.)
However, the Times warns, in a sidebar piece entitled “3 Ways To Be A Socially Conscious Nail Salon Customer” that “The impulse to make up the deficit in a worker’s pay with more in tips may be a noble one, according to advocates, but does little to solve the root problem, and in fact may perpetuate it.”
2. Think twice before complaining.
Some salons dock their employees already-low pay for transgressions, both major and minor. One of the stand-out stories, in all the wrong ways, included in the Times piece was the one about the lady with the patent leather Prada shoes that took a hit of polish remover; the customer complained to the store owner, who, in turn, docked the manicurist $270 to cover the cost of replacing the shoes.
Now, this is not to say that the customer wasn’t right to be upset that her shoes were ruined, but had she known that a woman who makes less than minimum wage would have her wages docked, maybe the customer would have thought twice before piping up.
3. Be choosy about your salons.
If a salon looks like a place where workers are being mistreated, it probably is. Go elsewhere. Some signs to look out for are equipment that is dirty or in disrepair; vans dropping off or picking up groups of manicurists for day-work; and a lack of timecard machinery, which can indicate workers’ hours are not being monitored.
Another thing to look for are salons that have established a Code of Ethics. The Houston Chronicle suggests that salons adopt a Code of Ethics that covers “employee behavior within the salon, treatment of your customers, and interactions with other salons. Include the code of ethics in employee training and handbooks and periodically evaluate how well your employees are following the code. Post it prominently in your salon where customers can see it so they are familiar with your ethical philosophy.” The article also emphasises that salons make it clear in their Code of Ethics that owners “will not discriminate against employees or customers based on race, sex, religion, age or ethnicity.” Discrimination faced by non-Korean workers was a topic that the Times article explored in-depth.
4. Educate yourself.
If you regularly go to the same salon, hit Google to check for outstanding complaints or pending legal action against the owners. You can also read Yelp reviews to see if other customers have complained about dodgy owners or treatment of manicurists that seems off.
Learn more about nail salon safety and workers’ rights by searching for advocacy groups in your area, such as the California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative and the Oregon Collaborative for Healthy Nail Salons. Most importantly, put down the iPad and speak to your technician to find out if he or she is being treated fairly (say, for example, if you are getting a waxing treatment in a private room). Labor violations can be reported anonymously to your state’s Department of Labor.