Pabitra Dash worked in New York nail salons for years. Throughout that time, she suffered not one, not two, but seven miscarriages, related to the chemicals she inhaled at work every day. She is just one of many workers who labor in an environment rife with poor standards, and one often overlooked when discussing workers’ rights.
Nail salons are rampant with wage theft, miserable working conditions, and little reliable capacity to combat such dire circumstances. But an effort in New York state seeks to change that.
The Nail Salon Minimum Standards Council Act, introduced by state Senator Jessica Ramos and state Assemblymember Harry Bronson, would establish actual standards for the industry. It would create a council made up of workers, employers, and public representatives that would work with the state Department of Labor to oversee minimum workplace standards and shape future industry policy. It would also crucially establish an independent committee of experts, overseen by the labor commissioner, to establish a minimum pricing model for nail services in the state, to ensure competing businesses aren’t stuck in a pricing race to the bottom.
Representatives tried to pass similar legislation last year but weren’t successful. Now, as the New York legislative session comes to a close this Thursday, workers in a majority–Asian, Pacific Islander, and Latina industry are eager for change to finally happen.
Angelina, who has worked in nail salons for over 20 years, told TNR that she doesn’t feel supported in any way in the industry. Workers are afraid of supporting each other, out of fear of being fired in retaliation, and she doesn’t feel supported by the state, given legislators still have not passed the bill. Angelina said she has been fired unjustly numerous times, while sometimes getting paid as little as $90 for a 12-hour workday. In one incident, after Angelina confronted her boss for stealing from her wages, her boss began giving her fewer days and fewer hours. Even while clients looked specifically for Angelina, her boss would send them to other people. Eventually, Angelina’s boss just told her there was no more work and that she’d call her when there was.
Alongside the economic exploitation, the industry is rife with physical exploitation.
Workers are seldom given personal protective equipment—essential even before Covid-19 first struck America, amid the constant exposure to toxic chemicals and fumes. One California Environmental Protection Agency study found an array of chemicals in the salon environment to be connected to “carcinogenicity, endocrine disruption, developmental and reproductive toxicity, respiratory toxicity,” among other concerning hazards to human health.
Another study from the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health found 20 percent of nail techs reporting issues with reproductive health. Twenty-five percent reported complications during their pregnancy, compared to the general population’s 8 percent. Nail salon workers were also more than three times as likely as the general population to have babies born with birth defects.
Angelina said that many of her co-workers have developed allergies that have metastasized into severe rashes and skin conditions; many can’t go to the doctor because they don’t have health insurance. Angelina recalls reaching a momentary breaking point in 2017, being forced to leave work as she experienced severe abdominal pains. After visiting the doctor, she was told she had developed a large cyst on her ovary that was on track to becoming cancerous. It was suggested that holding in going to the bathroom contributed to the cyst; at work, Angelina rarely got breaks to use the bathroom or even to eat.
With over 6,000 nail salons in New York state alone—many employing immigrant women with little institutional support and weaker access to medical care—such statistics and stories are incredibly alarming.
It’s what makes lawmakers determined to pass the Nail Salon Minimum Standards Council Act this time around.
“Coming out of the pandemic, we need to use every tool at our disposal to combat the feminization of poverty,” state Senator Jessica Ramos told TNR. “If the state can create a space where workers and nail salon owners can come together to co-create rules and regulations, it’s going to ensure the longevity of the nail salon sector, which is currently going through a race to the bottom.”
The bill has only a few days left to advance. For now, the bill is reportedly being considered by an unofficial working committee staffed by Senators Kevin Thomas, James Skoufis, Neil Breslin, Timothy Kennedy, José Serrano, Toby Stavisky, and Shelley Mayer.
Meanwhile, thousands of nail salons continue to operate without accountability, rife with toxic chemicals and no guaranteed protective measures. Thousands upon thousands of workers, largely immigrant women, are working with fear. Fear of taking a break to go to the bathroom or speaking up about stolen wages. Fear of being afflicted with life-altering medical conditions and passing on such conditions to a future child. Fear of losing their job if they speak out on any of it.
This piece has been updated.