Nail Salon Workers Allege Abuse In String Of Lawsuits

nail salon workers abuseIf you've ever received a speedy $10 manicure, there's a good chance that the woman who buffed your nails was paid less than minimum wage, denied overtime, and suffered emotional abuse. At least that's what salon workers and attorneys claim in a spate of lawsuits.

The latest, a nationwide class action suit on behalf of 13 salon workers, alleges that XpresSpa, the largest global network of premium airport salons, is guilty of a host of "systematic" labor law violations, according to the women's attorney, C. K. Lee of Kraselnik & Lee, PLLC. An attorney representing XpresSpa said that she had "no comment" on the lawsuit.

Remarks by the nail salon workers' legal advocates, as well as other lawsuits, depict the industry as the modern equivalent of the Dickensian factory. Among the allegations:

  • Nail salons in an affluent areas like New Canaan, Conn., are staffed largely by women bused in from Queens, Brooklyn and New York's Chinatown in the early morning, attorney Lee alleged in an interview. And the salon workers are stuck there, especially in sandal season, until 8 or 9 in the evening.

  • Many workers endure 10-hour-plus days without lunch breaks, "or even bathroom breaks," says Luna Ranjit, the executive director of Adhikaar, a social justice nonprofit based in Queens that works with Nepalese-speaking communities.

  • Many salons pay their workers less than minimum wage, deny them overtime and improperly categorize them as contractors to deny them benefits. (The average salary is $22,150 a year.)

  • The cosmetic industry essentially regulates itself, thanks to laws that haven't been updated since 1938 -- so salons are rife with toxic products that have been linked to reproductive problems and cancer.

The Cost Of A Cheap Manicure

As the nail salon industry exploded over the past few decades, salons engaged in a "race to the bottom," according to Shirley Lin, an attorney with the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, exploiting their immigrant employees to keep prices low.

Now these women workers are fighting back.

Last month, a judge ordered a chain of Long Island nail salons to pay $250,000 to six of their former employees, all Chinese immigrant women, for unpaid wages and overtime. In February, Perma Sherpa, a Nepali-immigrant nail salon worker who was denied overtime but forced to buy her own tools, endure ethnic insults and eat in the salon's waxing room -- when she was allowed to eat at all -- settled with her former employer for an undisclosed amount.

Last year, two Brooklyn salons, Nail Plus and Cute Nail, were both hit with lawsuits, as was Babi Nail in Long Island. The year before, two women sued Bonnie's Nail and Spa on New York's Upper West Side, another worker sued Prisca Nail in Queens, and a fourth sued Nail Niobe on Park Avenue. And the year before that, lawsuits were dished out to Melaje Nail Salon on Long Island, New Happy J&J Salon in Brooklyn, Ji Ji Nails in New Jersey, and the Renaissance Nail chain in Darien and New Canaan, Conn.

And then there was the woman who started it all: Susan Kim, a Korean-American who worked at an Upper East Side nail salon for 16 years. In 2007 a judge awarded Kim $182,000 for unpaid overtime wages, lost earnings, and pain and suffering, and in doing so indirectly gave manicurists across the tri-state area a new sense of their own rights.

Asian immigrant and women's advocacy groups have taken up the cause. Adhikaar is now organizing Nepali nail salon workers, reports the Daily News, training them to survey their peers in the field, and pushing to get manicurist licensing exams offered in Nepalese, so that the workers have greater protections.

An Inspiring Immigrant Story

The nail salon industry has, in many ways, been an inspiring story of immigrant entrepreneurship. In the 1970s, manicures were a luxury of the New York elite, like hot stone massages or seaweed facials. Today, without an appointment, you can walk into one of the nail salons that dot most retail blocks in the city, and get your nails buffed for $9. It's a niche industry built largely by Southeast Asian immigrant women, mostly Korean on the East Coast, and Vietnamese on the West.

The nail salon industry grew by over 370 percent between 1995 and 2005, according to Nails magazine, a trade publication. Approximately 95 percent of the country's 380,000 nail technicians are women, and 59 percent are women of color.

Limited English skills mean these women often have few other opportunities to work. It can also make it much harder for them to speak out against abuse, or even realize that what they're suffering is illegal.

"They just don't know," says Lee. "They come from a culture, society, where people are supposed to work super-long hours, and don't get paid overtime."

For decades they suffered quietly, their advocates say, even as many felt that their working conditions were making them sick. A survey of 71 salon workers in Boston, published in the Journal of Immigrant and Minority Health, found that 21 percent had some kind of respiratory issue. Many nail salons aren't properly ventilated, and several salon workers claim that they've suffered miscarriages from working in the fumes.

A Department of Toxic Substances Control report published Tuesday found that a majority of nail products that claimed to be free of toxic chemicals actually contained them.

The employers abusing these salon workers don't fit the capitalist stereotype of a white, mustached male, however; They're often immigrant women themselves -- though more established -- and desperately trying to keep their businesses afloat. Sometimes the employers and employees belong to the same family.

But Asian immigrant women are getting wise to their rights, and joining the long list of immigrant groups in history who fought and won rights for workers. Over the last few decades, they made beauty treatments cheap. Now, it seems, they're making them political.

And for the women who get weekly manicures, Lee has one piece of advice: "Remember to tip."

Don't Miss: Companies Hiring Now

More From AOL Jobs

Add a Comment

*0 / 3000 Character Maximum


Filter by:

They are working in the wrong salon. I know a lot of people that do nails for a living, and are paid 60/40 (employee/owner) without renting a chair or even buying their own supplies.

They make as much if not more than the average American. Specially during open-toe shoe season. This minimum wage is unheard of where I'm from.

April 12 2012 at 4:33 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

this is so stupid I am a salon owner if you dont like my rules dont come to work simple it not that hard to understand I worked my way up this way working for orhers I didn;t like some but I needed to live and to learn I didnt sue them if I didnt like the way I was treated I quit and went some where else now days they get a friggin lawyer SO STUPID In my shop if you dont like it I tell them go some where else and work I did it they can to

April 12 2012 at 2:25 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

Capitalist stereotype white, mustaced male; I beg your friggin' pardon!!!!!!!

April 12 2012 at 2:06 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

Alot of these women are in the country illegally, speak little or no english and are working under the table for little or even no pay. They do it because they hear (from family members already here) about all the great things they can have in this country. They get here and live in three bedroom apartments with 10 sometimes 15 people and are totally dependant on their employers, who oft times are their own family. This also happens in Asian restuarants, cleaners, shoe repair, etc. They are no different from the Mexicans who do the same thing but who get the brunt of the anomostity from mainstream America. These people are getting rich off of cheap and/or illegal labor.

April 12 2012 at 1:45 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply

Recently a friend of mine got a job cleanings rooms at a motel. Washinton has a law that allows each worker a 10 minute break after 2 hours of work and after 4 hours a 1/2 hour unpaid lunch break. The motel allowed her no breaks at 2 hours and a 20 minute lunch. She was hungry one day at lunch so she walked acrossed the street to McDonalds and bought some food. there was a line of people there so her break was about 22 minutes long. They said she didn't have the same work ethic that they did and fired her. She went to a lawyer and filed a suit. He told her she had a good case. That was at least a year or two ago and nothing has been done. I would say this is typical of business in the US. They seem to beat you down every chance they get.

April 12 2012 at 1:39 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I'm not anti-immigrant but I've long had the feeling that some Korean immigrants who work in nail salons are indentured servants, so I go to the lone American salon in town, which charges competitive prices. When men started doing this work, it was an eye opener to me that they are forced to do it. Also, there are countless benefits to being able to communicate with your nail tech or anyone else in a personal service industry.

April 12 2012 at 1:13 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
Nate & Heidi

Going into one of these so called "nail salons" is far more damaging than one might think. As a cosmetology instructor I advise my students of these salons. The implements are NOT cleaned or thrown away between clients, not even their stations are wiped down. Using a electric nail file on the natural nail is extremely harmful to the nail and its bed, not to mention most electric files they use are dremmel drills. Of course they also use DENTAL acrylic, not nail acrylic because its cheap, and you are more likely to come walking out of one of those places with a nail fungus, which could be dangerous to the consumers.

April 12 2012 at 1:11 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Nate & Heidi's comment

I go to 1 of the few nail salons in my area that is owned by an American,and she employs Americans.I pay a bit more,but feel it's well worth it.A few years back,a co-worker chose to go to one of the Asian salons and bragged about how little she paid.When she had a pedi there,they used an instrument that is illegal to use in this state,and cut her foot.She was very lucky that she didn't get an infection.As with everything,you get what you pay for.

April 12 2012 at 1:52 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

The nail must be ruffed up in order for the acrylic nail to stick to the "real" nail bed.....Everyone should know by now that acrylics damage your own nails and prevents them from "breathing." This is why your nails turn yellow underneath....There is maintenance called "fill ins" that I am sure are profitable to salon owners......Personally, I don't like that they speak their native tongue in front of us. It's rude and unprofessional and probably something derogatory in nature.

April 12 2012 at 12:48 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to aliosh's comment

I have had false nail,now the gel type,for years,and have never had a fungus,and they have never been yellow.

April 12 2012 at 1:54 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

These women are often independent contractors and are not subject to labor laws. They're also in a high cash industry that often gets under reported.

April 12 2012 at 12:42 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
Theresa Weaver

People simply need to be aware of where they are going to get their nails done and who is managing those places. The best places to go are smaller family owned stores. We have a couple in our area that charge $15 for a manicure and $25 for a pedicure. That is the same price as the larger salons in this area that employ people who generally don't speak English. I stopped going to places where people can't speak English or that have a lot of employees. The place I go to now has three workers, all relatives. They're very friendly, kind people who've become friends of the family. Unlike a lot of salons I visited, all three of them are either very proficient in English or native English speakers. They are very, very, very clean and do the best work.

April 12 2012 at 12:41 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

Search Articles

Picks From the Web