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What Upending the Nail Salon Industry in NYC Really Did to Those That Work In It

Driely S.

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When the next year starts, people won't be thinking about manicures in the same way they did at the start of this year, thanks to the New York Times's exposé on the low pay and toxic conditions that many nail salon employees silently endured for years. The reaction was unprecedentedly swift, with Governor Andrew Cuomo taking action less than a week later to ultimately help train unlicensed technicians without penalty and secure lost pay. In reaction, salon owners felt denigrated, protesting that the new standards were unduly harsh.

But nearly seventh months later, has this push-and-pull had an effect on the daily lives of nail salon workers? Chava Gourarie of the Columbia Journalism Review investigated the article's domino effect on "the city's mainly female immigrant nail salon workers and owners" who are rarely the focus of any major attention and found that "the promise of fair wages and legal protections has given some nail techs a new sense of possibility in a country that, for many, is not their own" — for the most part, anyway.

Carmen, a 23-year-old Mexican immigrant living on Staten Island, is one such bright spot. She told Gourarie that her pay and hours went from $60 for a ten-hour day to $75 for an eight-hour one in late summer, and a worker's Bill of Rights appeared on her salon's wall in Spanish, among other languages. She also applied for a license, which marked her second trip into Manhattan in five years. And perhaps the best part?

"When an inspector comes in, we don't have to run out now," she tells CJR. "Before, when the inspector came, [my boss] said, ‘Immigration is coming! Run!' "

Eugenia Colon, a former nail salon worker who was featured in the Times story, told Gourarie that she'd long been critical about the industry but never thought it could change. And now that it is, she's emboldened to protect herself and others, scanning for illegalities every time she visits a salon. "I love nails. But it could get better," she said.

But while employees felt the vindication that the exposé aimed to bring, salon owners ""who," Gourarie wrote, "maliciously or not, had benefitted from the status quo," felt the unfair burden that they claim the article has tried to place upon them, blaming author Sarah Maslin Nir for their newfound troubles. Libertarian news publication Reason has gone as far to say that there were several factual errors in the article that have unjustly caused these problems, though the Times has disputed this.

Sona Gurung, the owner of Sona Nails who spoke with Nir for the story, even says she was misquoted as saying that $35 was a good wage — she meant that she had considered it so when she began as a manicurist 18 years prior, but not today and not for her employees (The Times counters that Nir's notes from the conversation support what was published).

And finally, whether they meant to or not, the Times has stirred the pot when it comes to racial relations within salons, with Koreans and other Asian Americans taking priority over Hispanics who cannot communicate well with their bosses, according to CRJ. "You can't say anything," 52-year-old Mexican immigrant Lucia told Gourarie about it. "You just listen and stay silent." Community organizers are trying to relieve these tensions, just some of many that the nail salon industry will undoubtedly face in the coming years.