“At Nail Salons, Beauty Treatments Can Have a Distinctly Unglamorous Side” – New York Times
By Steven Greenhouse
Happy Lee can hardly believe that the nail salon across the street from hers charges just $7 for a manicure.
I dont know how they can make it, said Ms. Lee, the owner of Happy Beauty Salon in Carle Place, Long Island, which employs nine manicurists.
Ms. Lee said her industry had been thrown into turmoil by a wave of new salons that have taken away business and driven down prices from high-end nail emporiums on the Upper East Side to low-cost shops in suburban strip malls. Competition is so intense, she said, that her salon still charges $8 for manicures Monday through Wednesday, the same price it charged when it opened in 1984.
When we opened, it was easy to make it, but now its very hard, she said.
Nationwide, the number of salons has doubled over the past decade, according to Nails Magazine, an industry publication, lifting the number of salons to 3,800 in New York State and to 2,600 in New Jersey.
As the number of nail salons has surged, Chinese immigrants have poured into the industry in New York and New Jersey, which has long been dominated by Korean immigrants, like Ms. Lee. These Chinese manicurists often work for low wages, helping salon owners hold down their expenses and prices.
These low prices are a boon to the many women and more and more men who have weekly manicures not just to look good, but also to feel good.
Nail salons have expanded because theres a lot more attention to fine grooming, said Cyndy Drummey, the editor of Nails Magazine. Its a low-cost, good-feeling thing thats accessible to everybody.
But the demand has taken a toll on many salon workers, advocates for the workers said. Owners often force employees to work 60 hours a week while failing to pay overtime or allow lunch breaks. And lower manicure prices mean lower tips for workers who spend their days cutting cuticles and painting on polish.
Beyond wage problems, many manicurists say their job requires using harmful chemicals that often cause allergic reactions, breathing problems and rashes. In one extreme case, a manicurist in New Jersey was set on fire after chemical fumes in her shop burst into flames.
Were seeing more abuses over wages, dangerous chemicals and safety, said Nancy Eng, an organizer with the Chinese Staff and Workers Association, an advocacy group for immigrant workers. Concerns about such abuses have led to stepped-up efforts to confront salon owners.
The Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund has sued two salons near Lincoln Center, accusing them of violating overtime laws. Several city and state lawmakers have joined with the Chinese Staff and Workers Association to create an alliance that will push for stricter air quality regulations at salons and screen workers for health problems.
The federal Environmental Protection Agency has distributed more than $200,000 in grants and published safety brochures seeking to minimize chemical exposures that could harm salon workers and customers. And the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration is investigating the salon in Hillsdale, N.J., where a manicurist caught fire and was critically injured on May 30.
She looked like a marshmallow on fire, said Russell Andrews, the owner of a nearby shop who helped extinguish the flames when the manicurist ran out of her salon screaming.
Yuki Lin, a 27-year-old immigrant from China, said her salon in Jamaica, Queens, did not pay her any wages during her first three weeks, and then paid her just $20 per day for the next three weeks. Like many manicurists, she typically worked ten hours a day, six days a week. On busy days, she said, she often could not take a lunch break until 5 p.m.
Her boss ultimately raised her pay to $70 a day, not including the $15 or so she received in tips. But she quit last October because she was convinced that a rash covering her face was caused by one or more of the solvents, primers, polishes, glues and acrylics used at the salon.
It was very red, and there were all these bumps, Ms. Lin said. My husband said I should quit. When I complained to my boss about it last summer, he said it was just a seasonal allergy. He didnt want me to quit because the salon was very busy at the time.
I spent $1,000 out of my own pocket to see doctors about the rash, she added. It finally started going away a few months after I left.
In a 2004 survey of salon employees in New York City, 37 percent said they often or sometimes had skin problems, 37 percent said they suffered from eye irritation, 57 percent from allergies, 66 percent from neck or back discomfort and 18 percent from asthma. For the survey, 100 workers were interviewed by the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health and a Korean workers group, Empowering the Korean American Community.
There are a lot of toxic products, and theres often very poor ventilation, said Dr. George Friedman-Jiménez, director of the Bellevue/New York University Occupational and Environmental Medicine Clinic. Many salon chemicals cause skin problems, he said, and nail dust and fumes from glues and acrylics used to make artificial nails can cause breathing problems.
He said his clinic hopes to work with salon owners and state officials to test air quality in salons and screen manicurists for health problems.
Lisa Huang, who works at a salon in the Bronx, said the chemical smell sometimes nauseates her. Of course, Im concerned about the dangers, she said, but I need to work and make a living.
An example of the industrys growing tensions can usually be seen on Fridays on the West Side of Manhattan where protesters picket outside a salon at Amsterdam Avenue and 67th Street. One protester, Do Yea Kim, a Korean immigrant who worked for 17 years at the salon, 167 Nail Plaza, has filed a lawsuit accusing the salon of not paying her overtime and not giving her lunch breaks, as required by state law.
The owner made it hard because there were no breaks, said Ms. Kim, who said she worked most days from 9:15 a.m. to 8 p.m. She said she earned $460 a week, and at least $200 more in tips.
Dong Rim Park, the salons owner, said Ms. Kims allegations were false. Of course we give lunch breaks, she said, pointing to several employees who were on breaks because the shop was not busy.
Ms. Park said that she was not an expert on overtime laws, but that she always paid at least the minimum wage. The workers and I agreed on what they would be paid, and no one ever protested about overtime, she said.
She said the weekly protests were hurting her business and her employees incomes. Business was already tough before all this happened, said Ms. Park, a Korean immigrant who opened her salon in 1985. There are many more nail salons than Starbucks, but not nearly as many people have manicures as drink coffee.
More than 80 percent of the salons in the New York-New Jersey area are Korean-owned, according to industry experts. In California, by contrast, an estimated three-fourths of salon owners and workers are Vietnamese. The Vietnamese community there has been far more outspoken about safety problems than the Korean community has been in New York.
Ms. Lee, the salon owner on Long Island, said many Koreans went into the business because entry costs are low, with entrepreneurs able to open salons for $50,000 to $100,000. Asian immigrants, whether Koreans two decades ago or Chinese today, often become manicurists because the job requires little English and only a few weeks of training.
Its hard now to get Korean workers, so we hire Chinese a lot of the time, said Ms. Lee, who is co-chairwoman of the Korean American Nail Association of New York.
I want to put my daughter in the business, but no way she wants to do that, she said, adding that her daughter was in college and wanted to become a teacher. They dont want to do this any more, the younger generation.
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