Once an indulgence reserved for the wealthy, manicures are now a more regular part of the American grooming routine. The Bureau of Labor Statistics didn't even track "manicurist" as an occupation until 1979. Since then, the industry has expanded rapidly. Today, there are about 350,000 "nail technicians" [opens PDF] in America.
A main reason for the boom is the influx of immigrants entering the market and offering affordable prices. Forty percent of nail salon owners and employees across the nation are Vietnamese [opens PDF]. In the New York-New Jersey metropolitan area, Korean immigrants own more than 80 percent of the nail salons. In recent years, Chinese immigrants are also joining the nail industry in increasing numbers.
Because the job doesn't require much English, salon work is a common entry-level position for newly arrived immigrants. But limited knowledge of English, and of the U.S. legal system, means vulnerability to labor abuse. The Brennan Center for Justice found consistent minimum wage and overtime violations in the nail salon industry. The small size of the businesses and the variety of employment relationships creates an "open door for evasion or outright violation of workplace protections."
According to the Brennan Center's 2007 report Unregulated Work in the Global City, nail salon workers are required to work long hours—a 12-hour day is typical. Meal breaks are not always allowed. In addition, workers are exposed to highly toxic and harmful chemicals, prompting TIME to declare nail salon work one of "The Worst Jobs in America."
A spate of protests and lawsuits in the last few years has shed light on working conditions in nail salons. The Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund filed a lawsuit in August 2009 against a New Jersey nail salon that had fired four employees for criticizing their employer's discriminatory practices. The workers were not paid overtime and were subject to verbal abuse in the form of racial slurs against Koreans.
In April 2008, three Latina salon workers in Darien, Connecticut, filed suit against their former employers, claiming sexual harassment, unpaid overtime hours, and minimum wage violations. The women alleged that their former employer touched them inappropriately and forced them to massage a male employee and male clients in the back room of the salon.
These recent cases were inspired in part by manicurist Susan Kim's legal victory in October 2007. Kim was fired when she suggested that her Manhattan employer hire more employees to ease the 10.5-hour workdays she and her co-workers faced. After visiting the Chinese Staff and Workers' Association, she learned for the first time about fair wage and labor laws, and realized that the salon had cheated her out of thousands of dollars in unpaid wages. When she sued, Kim was awarded $182,000 in back pay—even more than the $150,000 she had originally demanded.
In addition to unfair labor practices, nail salon workers are often exposed to harmful chemicals for hours at time. Nail polish contains a "toxic trio" of dibutyl phthalate, formaldehyde, and toluene. Studies have found that exposure to these chemicals is associated with poor performance on tests of attention and memory. Most nail technicians are of childbearing age, and studies have shown that children prenatally exposed to these chemicals perform worse on tests for cognitive function, language, and behavior. Nail salon workers have also reported a high rate of miscarriages, skin rashes, and kidney infections.
There have also been positive developments in the industry. OPI Products, one of the most popular nail polish brands, has removed all three "toxic trio" chemicals from its nail polishes. In 2007, the Environmental Protection Agency awarded grants to two non-profit groups to help nail salons go green, in order to lessen the health threat to workers and customers.
A recent survey [opens PDF] by the industry's trade publication found that 66 percent of salon owners and manicurists had instituted environment-friendly practices in their salon. And, as more attention is drawn to nail salon working conditions, more workers are speaking out about their rights.