The Price of Nice Nails: Manicurists are routinely underpaid and exploited

Sarah Maslin Nir, The Price of Nice Nails: Manicurists are routinely underpaid and exploited, and endure ethnic bias and other abuse. The New York Times, 7 May 2015. “UNVARNISHED: Articles in this [two-part] series [examine] the working conditions and potential health risks endured by nail salon workers.”

Update from the Public Editor of The New York Times: Margaret Sullivan, New Questions on Nail Salon Investigation, and a Times Response, The New York Times, 6 November 2015. “My take: The series and its author, Sarah Maslin Nir, had admirable intentions in speaking for underpaid or abused workers. And the investigation did reveal some practices in need of reform. But, in places, the two-part investigation went too far in generalizing about an entire industry. Its findings, and the language used to express them, should have been dialed back — in some instances substantially…. There is a legitimate and important subject here about low-paid work done by immigrants in New York City — not just in nail salons. It includes, for example, the food-delivery business and many other services that affluent New Yorkers take for granted. I’m always glad to see The Times take on situations in which the poor and voiceless are exploited. But, in doing so, it must protect its reputation for accuracy and rigor above all. My recommendation is that The Times write further follow-up stories, including some that re-examine its original findings and that take on the criticism from salon owners and others — not defensively but with an open mind.”

Part One, The Price of Nice Nails:

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.

But largely overlooked is the rampant exploitation of those who toil in the industry. The New York Times interviewed more than 150 nail salon workers and owners, in four languages, and found that a vast majority of workers are paid below minimum wage; sometimes they are not even paid. Workers endure all manner of humiliation, including having their tips docked as punishment for minor transgressions, constant video monitoring by owners, even physical abuse. Employers are rarely punished for labor and other violations….

Among the more than 100 workers interviewed by The Times, only about a quarter said they were paid an amount that was the equivalent of New York State’s minimum hourly wage. All but three workers, however, had wages withheld in other ways that would be considered illegal, such as never getting overtime.

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….

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

Some workers suffer more acutely. Nail salons are governed by their own rituals and mores, a hidden world behind the glass exteriors and cute corner shops. In it, a rigid racial and ethnic caste system reigns in modern-day New York City, dictating not only pay but also how workers are treated.

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….

With their gleaming glass fronts, the salons seem to display their inner workings as transparently as a department store displays a holiday window. But much of how salons operate and how workers are treated is kept deliberately opaque to the outside world.

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….

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….

The Labor Department is the New York State agency responsible for monitoring wage violations. An examination by The Times of the department’s enforcement database dating from 2008, obtained under the state’s Freedom of Information Law, found the department typically opens two or three dozen nail salon cases a year across the entire state. According to census data, there were more than 3,600 nail salons in the state in 2012, the most recent year for which figures were available.

The department opened a vast majority of these cases in response to worker complaints, as opposed to initiating its own investigations, the data shows.

A team of investigators regularly performs undercover sweeps of businesses suspected of breaking the law, but the agency had never conducted a sweep of nail salons until last year, said Christopher White, a spokesman for the Labor Department. He declined last month to say more about the salons in the operation or the violations found, because the investigation had not yet been closed. But a review of the 37 cases opened in 2014 showed that almost one-third of them involved shops from a single chain, Envy Nails, the one facing a class-action lawsuit from its workers….

Part Two, Perfect Nails, Poisoned Workers, 8 May 2015. “Some ingredients used in nail products have been tied to cancer, miscarriages, lung diseases and other ailments. The industry has long fought regulations.”

…[S]tories of illness and tragedy abound at nail salons across the country, of children born slow or “special,” of miscarriages and cancers, of coughs that will not go away and painful skin afflictions. The stories have become so common that older manicurists warn women of child-bearing age away from the business, with its potent brew of polishes, solvents, hardeners and glues that nail workers handle daily.

A growing body of medical research shows a link between the chemicals that make nail and beauty products useful — the ingredients that make them chip-resistant and pliable, quick to dry and brightly colored, for example — and serious health problems.

Whatever the threat the typical customer enjoying her weekly French tips might face, it is a different order of magnitude, advocates say, for manicurists who handle the chemicals and breathe their fumes for hours on end, day after day.

The prevalence of respiratory and skin ailments among nail salon workers is widely acknowledged. More uncertain, however, is their risk for direr medical issues. Some of the chemicals in nail products are known to cause cancer; others have been linked to abnormal fetal development, miscarriages and other harm to reproductive health.

A number of studies have also found that cosmetologists — a group that includes manicurists, as well as hairdressers and makeup artists — have elevated rates of death from Hodgkin’s disease, of low birth-weight babies and of multiple myeloma, a form of cancer….

In scientific circles, the three chemicals in nail products that are associated with the most serious health issues are dibutyl phthalate, toluene and formaldehyde. They are known as the “toxic trio” among worker advocates.

Dibutyl phthalate, called DBP for short, makes nail polish and other products pliable. In Australia, it is listed as a reproductive toxicant and must be labeled with the phrases “may cause harm to the unborn child” and “possible risk of impaired fertility.” Starting in June, the chemical will be prohibited from cosmetics in that country. It is one of over 1,300 chemicals banned from use in cosmetics in the European Union. But in the United States, where fewer than a dozen chemicals are prohibited in such products, there are no restrictions on DBP.

Toluene, a type of solvent, helps polish glide on smoothly. But the E.P.A. says in a fact sheet that it can impair cognitive and kidney function. In addition, repeated exposure during pregnancy can “adversely affect the developing fetus,” according to the agency.

Formaldehyde, best known for its use in embalming, is a hardening agent in nail products. In 2011, the National Toxicology Program, part of the United States Department of Health and Human Services, labeled it a human carcinogen. By 2016, it will be banned from cosmetics in the European Union….

In reality, the responsibility for evaluating the safety of the chemicals as they are used in cosmetics is left with the companies themselves.

Even while insisting they are safe, some polish companies have voluntarily begun to remove certain chemicals from formulations. By 2006, several prominent brands had announced their products would no longer contain any of the three. The new products were labeled “3-free” or “5-free,” referring to the number of chemicals that are ostensibly no longer in them.

But a 2010 study by the F.D.A. and another in 2012 by the California Environmental Protection Agency’s Department of Toxic Substance Control found in random tests that some products, even ones labeled “3-free” or “5-free,” in fact contained those very chemicals….

The regulation of chemicals in nail products is dictated by the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act of 1938. The part of the law that deals with cosmetics totals just 591 words.

The Food and Drug Administration explains the limitations it faces under the law on its website: “Cosmetic products and ingredients do not need F.D.A. premarket approval, with the exception of color additives.” It continues, “Neither the law nor F.D.A. regulations require specific tests to demonstrate the safety of individual products or ingredients.” In addition, “The law also does not require cosmetic companies to share their safety information with F.D.A.”

In 1976, the cosmetics industry itself established the Cosmetic Ingredient Review, a panel that is supposed to “review and assess the safety of ingredients used in cosmetics in an open, unbiased and expert manner,” according to its website. But the panel is financed entirely by the Personal Care Products Council, the industry lobbying group….

There have been efforts in recent years to overhaul the 1938 law and more strictly regulate cosmetic chemicals, but none made headway in the face of industry resistance. Since 2013, the products council, just one of several industry trade groups, has poured nearly $2 million on its own into lobbying Congress….

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration is the federal agency that sets chemical exposure limits in workplaces. The studies that have examined the chemical exposure levels for manicurists have found them to be well below these standards. Health advocates say the safety administration’s standards are badly out of date and flawed.

Even Dr. Michaels, the head of the safety administration, said his agency’s standards needed revision. Currently, he said, workers “can be exposed to levels that are legal according to OSHA but are still dangerous.”

Update: Sarah Maslin Nir, Cuomo Orders Emergency Measures to Protect Workers at Nail Salons. The New York Times, 11 May 2015. “Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo ordered emergency measures on Sunday to combat the wage theft and health hazards faced by the thousands of people who work in New York State’s nail salon industry.”

NYT Editorial: Justice for Nail Salon Workers. The New York Times, 11 May 2015. “Across the country, countless workers in the nail salon industry, mainly immigrant women, toil in misery and ill health for meager pay, usually with no overtime, abused by employers who show little or no consideration for their safety and well-being. It is a world of long days and toxic chemicals, where the usual protections of government have failed, at all levels.

In shining a light on one ugly industry, a recent report in The Times has also illuminated a far larger problem that occurs wherever greedy employers meet vulnerable workers. Farm laborers, nannies, carwash workers, day laborers, dishwashers, busboys, construction workers, garment workers, janitors — it’s a sweatshop economy, and Americans have gotten used to its bounty of cheap services and goods, basking in ever-cheaper luxury while ignoring the pain and injustice that make it all possible.”