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The Horrific Conditions of New York City's Nail Salon Workers, Detailed

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There's a lot more to worry about with nail salons than letter grades. The New York Times took a deep dive into the industry and found routine exploitation of the technicians that perform manicures and pedicures, including crazy hours, gross underpayment, racism, and even training periods for new employees where they are not paid at all.

A new worker (often an illegal immigrant of Chinese, Korean, or Hispanic descent) typically pays a salon owner at least $100 for "training" and is paid in only customer tips until the owner determines she is skilled enough to earn wages. In the case of Jing Ren, a central figure in the Times' story, those wages began at $30 per 10- to 12-hour day after three months of unpaid work, well under the minimum wage for a tipped employee in New York State. And you'd be hard-pressed to find a salon that pays overtime, too.

The long hours that these workers face—which doesn't include the commute from places like Flushing, where women are hustled into vans like migrant workers each morning from one-bedroom apartments they may share with several family members and even strangers—make it difficult for them to look for work elsewhere, take classes to learn English, or even care for their own children.

What's worse is that salon owners interviewed for this story were largely unapologetic about the conditions their employees faced, citing that the training fees and long hours are what's needed to keep the business afloat when charging $10 for a manicure. "When a beginner comes in, they don't know anything, and they give you a job," Sona Grung of Sona Nails explained of the training fee, adding, "If you work in a nail salon for $35, it's very good."

"Salons have different ways of conducting their business," Lian Sheng Sun, Ren's former boss, told the paper. "We run our business our own way to keep our small business surviving."

Further, workers of Chinese and Hispanic descent have to face racial pressures under Korean owners, who operate many of the nearly 2,000 salons in New York City. "Korean workers routinely earn twice as much as their peers," Sarah Maslin Nir wrote for the Times. "Chinese workers occupy the next rung in the hierarchy; Hispanics and other non-Asians are at the bottom." At one Korean-owned salon in Connecticut, a worker claimed that non-Korean employees weren't allowed to speak during their 12-hour shifts.

Language barriers and lack of citizenship prevent many of these women from coming forward to complain about these conditions, and the state's Labor Department hasn't been much help, either. Over the past several years, the paper writes, the department has typically opened two to three dozen cases per year on individual nail salons, of which there are more than 3,600 in the state. It's typical that the department perform sweeping checks of other industries' businesses, but the first one for nail salons was only done last year.

And when they do open investigations, it can be difficult to collect evidence from employees. "It's really the only industry we see that in," an unnamed official said, "They are totally running scared in this industry."

They're often scared because they could get fired at a moment's notice, without anyone to turn to. The worst example detailed in this story came from Qing Lin, a 47-year-old manicurist who accidentally got polish on a customer's Prada sandal. Her boss took the $270 the customer demanded in compensation out of Lin's pay, and she was subsequently fired.

When recalling the incident, Lin said, "I am worth less than a shoe."