Long hours, dangerous chemicals: nail salon workers fight for industry change

Dolma Sherpa worked as a nail technician for four years in New York City, up until the Covid-19 pandemic shut down the industry and left her with severely reduced work hours when the industry reopened.

The work was already unstable, Sherpa explained, as she often worked seven days a week during busy times of the year, and then struggled to get hours and work through the winter.

In 2019, Sherpa and other workers organizing in the nail salon industry succeeded in their fight for a $15 minimum wage, eliminating the tipped minimum wage in the industry that was driving wages down, but she noted there are still many employers who aren’t following the law or have found other ways to cut corners at the expense of workers.

“They’re cutting tips, they’re cutting commissions. We don’t have control over schedules, they’re cutting our days, hours, and it’s not fair,” said Sherpa. “There are just so many ongoing challenges, despite what we’ve won in the past, whether it’s a lack of benefits, a lack of ventilation, health and safety issues, and retaliation.”

She is now an organizer with Adhikaar, a non-profit worker center organizing Nepali-speaking communities. It is also one of the groups currently advocating for a bill introduced this year in the New York senate and assembly that would create a nail salon industry council with powers to establish workplace standards throughout the industry in the state.

Sherpa argued nail salon workers deserve to be valued with fair wages, benefits and working conditions as professionals in other industries, as nail technicians undergo significant hours of training, courses and exams to obtain licenses to work in the industry.

“This campaign is a continuation of our work and a way for us to make sure that we can speak up without fear and get some permanent changes to the industry,” added Sherpa. “What we’re proposing is something for not just now, but for the future and the creation of something that will exist for a very long time if we can win this.”

The council would be the first of its kind in the nail salon industry in the US, similar to efforts in California to establish a fast-food sector council. The council would include 15 voting members and six non-voting members, including six workers, six employers, three public representatives, and three representatives each for employers and workers.

“Creating an industry-wide body that brings workers, salon owners and the state together to bargain and establish a uniform set of expectations and standards is how we ensure that every worker has recourse and authority to fight back against their exploitation,” said state senator Jessica Ramos, co-author of the legislation, in a press release on the bill’s introduction. “Any policies that are made for workers need to be developed with workers at the table.”

Both assembly and senate versions of the bill are currently in the committee phase, awaiting a decision on whether the bills will be reported to the full legislature for a vote.

The need for change seems urgent.

There are about 4,000 nail salons in New York City and 7,000 throughout the state. The industry in New York has an egregious record of abuses and exploitation of workers. In 2015, New York passed several laws aimed at reining in abuses, wage theft and exploitation in the industry in response to a New York Times expose on the industry in New York City, but workers and organizers say there remains a significant lack of enforcement as these issues persist in the industry.

In a February 2020 report by the New York Nail Salon Workers Association, 82% of workers reported experiencing wage theft at an average amount of $181 per week. Rates were highest at salons with the cheapest services. The vast majority of the workforce in the nail salon industry are immigrant women of color.

Maritza Ovalles has worked as a nail tech in New York City for 24 years and is a member of the New York Nail Salon Workers Association.

Throughout her career, Ovalles has worked long hours for low pay, with few or no breaks, no benefits and a lack of proper protection from the hazardous chemicals.

“I used to get a lot of headaches when I did acrylic nails and was exposed to all these chemicals,” said Ovalles. “There was no ventilation and there was a lot of dust from filing nails and chemicals from removing nail polish.”

When she started working in the industry, she made only $30 a day, despite working 10 to 12 hours a day, five or six days a week, and was never paid for working overtime.

“After all these years, I’ve had to take physical therapy for my arm. My joints are in pain,” added Ovalles. “I’ve had gastritis and had to remove my gallbladder from stones because we never were able to have a full lunch break. We used to eat at 4 or 5pm and had to rush to get back to work.”


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