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Most NY Nail Salon Workers Are Being Ripped Off, New Report Finds

Nail salon workers are speaking out following the release of a new report called “Race to the Bottom: Low Prices and Stolen Wages in NY’s Nail Salon Industry”

NEW YORK, N.Y.—More than 80% of nail salon workers in the New York metropolitan area are being cheated out of their proper wages, according to a report released Feb. 18 by the New York Nail Salon Worker Association.

The report, “Race to the Bottom: Low Prices and Stolen Wages in NY’s Nail Salon Industry,” was based on questionnaires completed by 98 workers. It found that 79% of employers don’t pay even the subminimum wage for tipped workers—from $9.05 to $11.35 an hour, depending on location and business size. Most don’t cover the difference when the worker’s tips aren’t enough to reach minimum wage, it added, and don’t pay overtime, despite employees typically working more than 60 hours a week.

“There is an overwhelming lack of compliance with labor law, especially with regard to minimum wage,” Workers United SEIU organizer Julie Xu told a press conference at the union’s headquarters. 

The survey estimated the average pay lost as about $180 a week, and found that only one out of seven employees who worked enough to qualify for paid sick leave actually got the time off.

Nail salons pay their workers—overwhelmingly women, and mostly Latina and Asian immigrants—in several different ways. About half in the survey got a flat day rate, typically $80 to $100 for a 10-hour shift. About a quarter work on commission, usually half the cost of a manicure or pedicure, while most others get a flat hourly rate. 

“I ended up working seven days a week to get paid $200 to $300,” said Miriam Reyes, who worked on commission—$5 for a $10 manicure—at a now-defunct Queens nail salon. When the shop closed suddenly in January, there had been so few customers that her last paycheck was $3 for 25 hours.

Sonia Morales, a Guatemalan immigrant who’s worked in the industry for 15 years, said that she got fired from a salon near Yankee Stadium after she asked to get a legally required half-hour lunch break. She had been making $350 for working six 12-hour shifts. When she demanded to get her last paycheck before she left—she said it’s common for employers to fire workers and not pay them—the manager threatened to call the police. She said she held her ground and got her money.

The problem is so widespread in the industry, said Edys Alvarez, that “if I was to go somewhere else, it would be the same situation.”

One reason for that, said Workers United organizing director Luis Gomez, is that the business is intensely competitive. There are about 4,000 nail salons in the city, more than triple the number 20 years ago, and prices are well below those elsewhere in the country. A Workers United survey of almost 2,000 salons last November found the average price for a manicure was $11.68 in the city and $10.03 on Long Island; 25% of salons charged less than $9, and 70% less than $12.” 

The state is phasing out the subminimum wage for tipped workers this year, Gomez noted, but “compliance is going to be a big issue.”

The “Race to the Bottom” survey found low prices directly correlated with wage theft. Of the 85 nail salons where respondents worked, workers at those where manicures cost $16 or more averaged $58 a week more than minimum wage, and none complained about wage theft. At those where they cost less than $13, 87% of respondents reported wage theft, at an average of more than $100 a week.

As in the construction industry, said Charlene Obernauer of the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health, the employers who cheat workers out of wages are the ones most likely to have safety violations, because they cut corners on both pay and safety.

Nail-salon workers are exposed to a “cocktail” of three toxic chemicals, she told LaborPress: toluene, a solvent used in paint thinner and glue; formaldehyde, the active ingredient in embalming fluid; and dibutyl phthalate, a plasticizer that causes skin irritation and may cause birth defects and reproductive-system problems. “We don’t know the effect of them in combination,” she added.

“¿Donde está la justicia?” (where is the justice?) asked City Councilmember Francisco Moya (D-Queens). “We cannot sit idly by and allow these workers to be abused.” 

Assemblymember Catalina Cruz (D-Queens) is planning to introduce the Nail Salon Accountability Act Feb. 25. The bill would link business-licensing and license-renewal procedures with labor-law compliance, according to the Nail Salon Workers Association. 

“We may not know all the laws, but we know what’s fair,” Sonia Morales said, speaking in Spanish through an interpreter. “We need laws that actually ensure compliance and help workers.”

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