The Price of Nice Nails

Sarah Maslin Neer, New York Times, May 7, 2015

The women begin to arrive just before 8 a.m., every day and without fail, until there are thickets of young Asian and Hispanic women on nearly every street corner along the main roads of Flushing, Queens.

As if on cue, cavalcades of battered Ford Econoline vans grumble to the curbs, and the women jump in. It is the start of another workday for legions of New York City’s manicurists, who are hurtled to nail salons across three states. They will not return until late at night, after working 10- to 12-hour shifts, hunched over fingers and toes.

On a morning last May, Jing Ren, a 20-year-old who had recently arrived from China, stood among them for the first time, headed to a job at a salon in a Long Island strip mall. Her hair neat and glasses perpetually askew, she clutched her lunch and a packet of nail tools that manicurists must bring from job to job.

Tucked in her pocket was $100 in carefully folded bills for another expense: the fee the salon owner charges each new employee for her job. The deal was the same as it is for beginning manicurists in almost any salon in the New York area. She would work for no wages, subsisting on meager tips, until her boss decided she was skillful enough to merit a wage.

It would take nearly three months before her boss paid her. Thirty dollars a day.

Once an indulgence reserved for special occasions, manicures have become a grooming staple for women across the economic spectrum. There are now more than 17,000 nail salons in the United States, according to census data. The number of salons in New York City alone has more than tripled over a decade and a half to nearly 2,000 in 2012.

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No American metropolitan area rivals New York for nail salons. Los Angeles and San Francisco, the closest, have about half as many salons per capita.

Asian-language newspapers are rife with classified ads listing manicurist jobs paying so little the daily wage can at first glance appear to be a typo. Ads in Chinese in both Sing Tao Daily and World Journal for NYC Nail Spa, a second-story salon on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, advertised a starting wage of $10 a day. The rate was confirmed by several workers.

Lawsuits filed in New York courts allege a long list of abuses: the salon in East Northport, N.Y., where workers said they were paid just $1.50 an hour during a 66-hour workweek; the Harlem salon that manicurists said charged them for drinking the water, yet on slow days paid them nothing at all; the minichain of Long Island salons whose workers said they were not only underpaid but also kicked as they sat on pedicure stools, and verbally abused.

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The juxtapositions in nail salon workers’ lives can be jarring. Many spend their days holding hands with women of unimaginable affluence, at salons on Madison Avenue and in Greenwich, Conn. Away from the manicure tables they crash in flophouses packed with bunk beds, or in fetid apartments shared by as many as a dozen strangers.

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Almost all of the workers interviewed by The Times . . . had limited English; many are in the country illegally. The combination leaves them vulnerable.

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Korean workers routinely earn twice as much as their peers, valued above others by the Korean owners who dominate the industry and who are often shockingly plain-spoken in their disparagement of workers of other backgrounds. Chinese workers occupy the next rung in the hierarchy; Hispanics and other non-Asians are at the bottom.

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In interviews, some owners readily acknowledged how little they paid their workers.

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Many owners said they were helping new immigrants by giving them jobs.

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Jing Ren usually spent days sleeping in her slim pallet a few feet from the bed of her 24-year-old cousin, Xue Sun, also a manicurist. She had no time to make other friends.

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Among the hidden customs are how new manicurists get started. Most must hand over cash–usually $100 to $200, but sometimes much more–as a training fee. Weeks or months of work in a kind of unpaid apprenticeship follows.

Ms. Ren spent almost three months painting on pedicures and slathering feet with paraffin wax before one afternoon in the late summer when her boss drew her into a waxing room and told her she would finally be paid.

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Nail salon workers are generally considered “tipped workers” under state and federal labor laws. Employers in New York are permitted to pay such workers slightly less than the state’s $8.75 minimum hourly wage, based on a complex calculation of how much a worker is making in tips. But interviews with scores of workers revealed rates of pay so low that the so-called tip calculation is virtually meaningless. None reported receiving supplemental pay from their bosses, as is legally required when their day’s tips fall short of the minimum wage. Overtime pay is almost unheard-of in the industry, even though workers routinely work up to 12 hours a day, six or even seven days a week.

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More experienced workers usually earn $50 to $70 per day, sometimes even $80. Their pay, though, still typically amounts to significantly less than minimum wage, given their long hours.

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Salon workers describe a culture of subservience that extends far beyond the pampering of customers. Tips or wages are often skimmed or never delivered, or deducted as punishment for things like spilled bottles of polish. At her Harlem salon, Ms. Cacho said she and her colleagues had to buy new clothes in whatever color the manager decided was fashionable that week. Cameras are regularly hidden in salons, piping live feeds directly to owners’ smartphones and tablets.

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As the throngs of manicurists gather in Flushing, Queens, every morning, the patter of “good mornings” is mostly in Chinese and Spanish, with the occasional snatches of Tibetan or Nepali. Korean is hardly ever heard among these workers heading to salons outside New York City, many of them hours away.

But to the customer settling into the comfort of a pedicure chair in Manhattan, it can seem as if nearly the entire work force is Korean.

The contrast stems from the stark ethnic hierarchy imposed by nail salon owners. Seventy percent to 80 percent of salons in the city are Korean-owned, according to the Korean American Nail Salon Association.

Korean manicurists, particularly if they are youthful and attractive, typically have their pick of the most desirable jobs in the industry–shiny shops on Madison Avenue and in other affluent parts of the city. Non-Korean manicurists are often forced into less desirable jobs in the boroughs outside Manhattan or even farther out from the city, where customers are typically fewer and tips often paltry.

In general, Korean workers earn at least 15 percent to 25 percent more than their counterparts, but the disparity can sometimes be much greater, according to manicurists, beauty school instructors and owners.

Some bosses deliberately prey on the desperation of Hispanic manicurists, who are often drowning under large debts owed to “coyotes” who smuggled them across the border, workers and advocates say.

Many Korean owners are frank about their prejudices. “Spanish employees” are not as smart as Koreans, or as sanitary, said Mal Sung Noh, 68, who is known as Mary, at the front desk of Rose Nails, a salon she owns on the Upper East Side.

{snip}  Ms. Noh said she kept her Hispanic manicurists at the lowest rung of work. “They don’t want to learn more,” she said.

Ethnic discrimination imbues other aspects of salon life. Male pedicure customers are despised by many manicurists for their thick toenails and hair-covered knuckles. When a man comes into the store, almost invariably a non-Korean worker is first draft for his foot bath, salon workers said.

Ana Luisa Camas, 32, an Ecuadorean immigrant, said that at a Korean-owned Connecticut salon where she worked, she and her Hispanic colleagues were made to sit in silence during their entire 12-hour shifts, while the Korean manicurists were free to chat.

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Lhamo Dolma, 39, a manicurist from Tibet who goes by Jackey, recalled a former job at a Brooklyn salon where she had to eat lunch every day standing in a kitchenette with the shop’s other non-Korean workers, while her Korean counterparts ate at their desks.

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A gold pendant embossed with Chinese characters and entwined with red thread hangs on the door of a two-story house in Center Moriches, on Long Island, about an hour’s drive east from where Ms. Ren works in Hicksville. {snip} A Mercedes-Benz sport utility vehicle parks in the driveway.

It is the home of the owner of Nail Love, a salon in a nearby shopping center. The charm on the door invokes financial prosperity for the house’s inhabitants. But the lives of the half-dozen manicurists who bunk in the basement are anything but prosperous.

They are employees of Nail Love. Their dimly lit warren is a barracks provided by the salon’s owner, a common arrangement for workers in salons outside commuting distance from New York City. It saves owners money and sometimes even turns a profit. In some other such situations, workers must pay rent to their bosses.

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Nail salon owners are often the success stories of their immigrant communities. Some owners rose from the ranks of manicurists themselves. In interviews, many owners expressed a vision of themselves as heroic, shouldering the burden of training workers and the risk of employing people who are not legally permitted to work in the United States. Fees extracted from new workers like Ms. Ren are proper compensation for the inconvenience of providing training, they said.

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In an interview, the owner’s wife, who would give only her first name, Hwu, said the salon’s sales exceeded $400,000 a year but there were significant expenses as well, like rent and payroll. Speaking at the salon in February, shortly after her husband dropped her off in their Cadillac S.U.V., she said some of her beginners were not paid $10 a day. She pointed to a male manicurist on his first day on the job: If he did not show promise, she said, he would not be paid at all.

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In rare instances when owners have been found guilty of wage theft, salons have often been quickly sold, sometimes to relatives. The original proprietors vanish, along with their assets, according to prosecutors. Even if they do not, collecting back wages is difficult. Owners can claim they do not have the means to pay, and it is often impossible to prove otherwise, given how unreliable salons’ financial records are.

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When investigators try to interview them, manicurists are frequently reluctant to cooperate, more so than in any other industry, according a Labor Department official involved who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the official was not permitted to talk with reporters. “It’s really the only industry we see that in,” the person said, explaining that it most likely indicated just how widespread exploitation is in nail salons. “They are totally running scared in this industry.”

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