As the nail salon industry booms, its workers pay the price

Dec 5, 2018

Getting a manicure used to be a luxury for the wealthy. But in the 1970s, war and changing immigration policies brought Asian immigrant and refugee women to the United States, where many trained to become manicurists. With more efficient and inexpensive technology, these women helped transform the industry to become the accessible, more affordable service it is today. But the UCLA Labor Center’s study on the nail salon industry found that 78 percent of workers in the industry earn low wages, which is more than double the national rate across all industries.

“This labor force has democratized the industry, but the cost is being paid by workers,” said Preeti Sharma, lead author of "Nail Files." Host Sabri Ben-Achour spoke to her about current labor conditions in nail salons and potential solutions to the treatment of these workers. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Sabri Ben-Achour: How did immigration change this industry?

Preeti Sharma: Well, part of what our report talks about is how nail salons are a booming multibillion-dollar industry, and the immigrant and refugee labor force as well as changes in technology have turned what used to be this high-end luxury service into an affordable one that everyday people can access. And in our report we found that this industry is mom and pop and immigrant driven. And while this labor force has definitely democratized the industry, making it accessible, the cost is being paid by workers through low wages.

Ben-Achour: You point out that the nail salon industry is expected to grow twice as fast as the average U.S. industry over the next decade. And you looked at the conditions of workers. What did you find?

Sharma: So we found that eight in 10 nail salon employees earn low wages, and this is actually at a significantly higher rate than a national rate of 33 percent for all industries. And some of those difficult working conditions that contribute to this include being paid a flat rate rather than an hourly rate, actually having minimum wage and overtime violations, and then harassment and surveillance. The other key concern that we found is issues of misclassification, and given that 30 percent of nail salon workers are self-employed, this number stands out because it's triple than the national average and that raises concerns for us around how some manicurists may be purposefully misclassified as independent contractors.

Ben-Achour: What do you mean by misclassification?

Sharma: So the nail salon sector has a high rate of folks who are self-employed, but part of this can include folks who are independent contractors, and those folks can set their own hours. They can make appointments with their own clientele if that's done correctly. However, this is often not the case based on studies and existing literature where folks don't have that kind of control. And in addition, part of the concern about being misclassified is not having access to workplace benefits and labor law protections, as well as the right to organize.

Ben-Achour: And so by misclassification, you mean there are people out there doing absolutely full-time jobs, full-time work, but they're classified as independent contractors so they don't get any of the benefits that go with what legally is a full-time job?

Sharma: Correct. Folks are working, you know, more than eight-hour work days, six days a week, and some of that raises questions around labor laws.

Ben-Achour: Why do you think this industry is so prone to these kinds of abuses?

Sharma: One thing that this report looks at are agencies at four different levels. And so there are agencies around licensing, labor, health and safety, and cosmetics products. And while there have been many inroads made around language access, there's still a lot of barriers around creating nonexploitative conditions. And studies have also shown that workers and employers have a lack of understanding around labor laws.

Ben-Achour: You mention language, so it sounds like you're saying that employers, these might be refugees or immigrants, might not know about U.S. labor law and the other way around, U.S. regulators might not have the language abilities necessary to properly regulate some businesses.

Sharma: Correct. We want agencies to be able to educate employers about their legal responsibilities and workers about their rights, and that should take into account these language barriers.

Ben-Achour: So in service of offering this one-time luxury to the average consumer, some sacrifices have been made in working conditions of these laborers. How do you fix that?

Sharma: We want to ensure quality jobs and labor protections for nail salon workers. We want to guarantee workplace protections and their enforcement. And we want to support high-road businesses and good employers, and we want to assure the health and safety of nail salon workers.

Ben-Achour: This does bring to mind the long-simmering debate over immigration that is ongoing. One side argues that immigrants take jobs, depress wages. Most studies find that immigrants do not steal jobs and that wages do not get depressed. I'm just wondering where your report fits in.

Sharma: I would say that this is an important time to be looking at immigrants, and given today's anti-immigrant sentiment, this is an example of immigrant entrepreneurship and ethnic niches that are thriving, and they're very much driven by immigrant and refugee and women's labor. And studies have shown that education is a key component in having workers and employers understand labor law. And so the whole point is to create this conversation and to bridge partnerships between community organizations that already have relationships with nail salons and, you know, can best provide this information.