The recent New York Times expose on corrupt nail salons has already sparked motion for New York's Governor Cuomo to investigate manicure businesses—though with 32 inspectors to cover the entire state, some are skeptical over whether or not the right practices will be enforced in wake of the legislation. "I don't understand how they can hire enough people and educate them in the different languages that are being spoken in salons," says Adele Free Pham, who has been compiling information on the Vietnamese community's influence on the industry in her documentary, #NailedIt. "There is a lot that could get lost in translation." Still, it's certainly a step in the right direction, and all of us here at InStyle headquarters are curious to see how the new measures will impact the nail industry as a whole.
New York City public advocate Letitia James has already suggested a grading system similar to that of restaurants, and while the response has been divided, we just hope a fair resolution comes through for the hard-working technicians who have been severely underpaid and mistreated. "It's pointing out something people needed to see—that this is a totally unregulated industry in the biggest city in the country, which negatively affects poor immigrant women of color, who don't have a lot of choices," Pham adds. "A lot of salons are also dealing with the escalating rents in New York, so I see that side of it, too, but I do believe there are people working in really terrible conditions, and everyone should be on top of what a normal nail salon should look like."
To help differentiate the legitimate salons from those that exploit their employees, we asked Pham as well as Haven Spa owners Gabrielle Ophals and Audra Senkus to outline a few indicators to be on the lookout for, and what to do when they apply.
Pricing Is Key
The price of a manicure or pedicure should be the first indication of whether or not the employees are getting fair payment. "After starting this documentary, I found that the real cost of a gel manicure is $30, no less than that for the amount of time that should go into applying it safely," Pham tells us. If a price is too good to be true, it probably is, like those $19.99 mani/pedi deals you see advertised. "If there's no regulation on pricing, you just invite drama when everyone is cutting the price, and no one is paying the worker," she adds.
Proper Ventilation and Sanitation Measures
All of the chemicals involved with processes like gel manicures, or even just the fumes from a bottle of lacquer, should warrant a good ventilation system in the salon, for the safety of both the technician and the customer. The sanitation of the tools is another indicator, as some salons opt to reuse items like paper nail files and orange wood sticks, or don't allow the use of gloves for their employees. "Those things are so inexpensive and we incorporate them into the cost of our manicure and pedicure," says Ophals. "Not spending that money isn't worth the savings." Additionally, the salons should have their licenses displayed, and if they aren't, you can ask to see one. "If the salon doesn't have a license displayed on the wall, they at least have to give them to you if you ask to see them," she adds. "So, if there's any resistance to it, that's an immediate red flag."
Absent Owners or Managers
Salons where the owner or manager is present is a good sign that the employees are being treated fairly. "Try to get familiar to a level of knowing if an owner actually works inside the salon, because if they do, it's likely going to be a lot more tolerable," says Pham. "They know it's a hard job, and they also wouldn't want to be in a salon that reeks of liquids and powders." Simply talking to your nail technician can also be a clue into the situation. "I know it can be awkward because we're not used to doing it in a lot of cases, and they may even respond kind of shyly, but that's the only way you're going to know what's going on in somebody's life," she adds. Pham recommends asking what their day rate is, whether or not they make tips, and if the owner works there.
Cash-Only Salons or Cash Discounts
"When you go into a salon and they say it's cash only, you get a cash discount, or the credit card machine is consistently not working, that's a huge red flag," Ophals says. "The only reason you wouldn't want people to use cards is because of tax evasion, and if they're evading taxes, they're probably not paying people by the books and are exploiting their employees."
Seeing the Same Technicians Working Long Hours
If you happen to pass by a salon every day and see the same people working for 12 to 14 hours straight, that's often an indicator, but not always. Working longer hours may be a personal choice for the technician, but obviously, breaks should be taken between clients, with a few days of time off each week. "It's hard work, and it's very detail-oriented, which makes it hard on your eyes and body," Ophals says. "Working 5 to 7 days a week for 12 hours can often be a sign, as very few people want to work those hours."
How the Nail Industry Should Change, and How to Help
Obviously, not every nail salon is corrupt, and just because a technician can't speak English isn't an indicator of a shady operation. The question of whether or not to continue visiting a nail salon is a Catch-22 in itself, so if you do decide to continue booking appointments, be conscious of the price, and keep an eye out for the indicators. "Don't start calling the authorities on just anyone, but if you have a good sense there is something wrong, I think it's important to call," says Senkus. "Still, the ability to speak English doesn't reflect on whether or not you're paid well, or any of those other things."
If the aforementioned red flags come up and you sense that something is wrong, Pham advises taking down the salon's information, and reaching out to the New York Commitee for Occupational Safety and Health.
Pham expects that you'll be seeing a worker's bill of rights posted in cooperating salons very soon, and wants standard pricing for what each service should cost to become the norm. Instead of punishing and closing down every operation, she also hopes the steps taken are more educational than punitive, and the costs that go toward the fines can be used to add proper ventilation and contribute to making the work environment better. "I really hope that the bad salon owners clean up their acts. Enough is enough, and it's not worth someone's health," she tells us. "Even though you're an immigrant, you're a woman, you're brown, and you don't speak English, you still have rights and you should know what they are."