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Benefits, and Some Resistance, as New York Cracks Down on Nail Salon Abuses


A nail salon in the Village this week. CreditNicole Bengiveno/The New York Times


At the Westchester County nail salon where Anna Patricia Moreno works, the owner has started allowing manicurists to take lunch breaks.

For Peng Xu, a manicurist at a salon on Long Island who goes by Chris, pay has increased to about $8 an hour from $6, and, for the first time, he is being paid for overtime.

But at Flower Nail & Spa, on Madison Avenue on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, workers say their hours have been cut back, apparently to ensure their boss does not have to pay them more for overtime.

Two months after a New York Times investigation into rampant labor abuses at nail salons and the dangers posed by the chemicals manicurists work with, there have been major shifts in the industry on several fronts. A multiagency task force set up by the administration of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has inspected some 755 salons, issuing 1,799 violations, according to state officials. At a ceremony in the Bronx on Thursday morning, Mr. Cuomo signed into law a measure that overhauls how the industry is licensed and how bad actors are punished.


Cuomo Signs Nail Salon Bill

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York, a Democrat, signed into a law on Thursday a measure that overhauls licensing practices in the industry.

 By New York Governor's Office on Publish DateJuly 16, 2015. Photo by Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times. Watch in Times Video »

But a survey of 100 Manhattan nail salons, as well as interviews with more than a dozen workers and owners in and around New York, suggests changes across the industry have been uneven.

More than 40 percent of the salons surveyed by The Times did not have on display the state’s newly required workers’ bill of rights, which outlines information on minimum wage and where employees can go for labor complaints.

Under newly issued state rules, gloves must now be worn by manicurists when they are handling things like cotton balls soaked in nail polish remover, and goggles when they pour acetone and other chemicals. Respirator masks — not the paper hospital-style mask that is commonly seen and is considered ineffective at combating chemical exposure — must be made available for workers to use when buffing or filing nails, or when sculpting acrylic nails. But the survey found gloves being used at just 15 percent of salons. When The Times observed masks in use at about two dozen salons, just three of them were employing the required respirator-style ones.

Yet many manicurists say life has improved, in tangible and intangible ways. Most concretely, for some, compensation has gone up. Mr. Xu, the Long Island manicurist whose pay went up to $8 an hour, said he had noticed an array of changes at his salon, including workers’ wearing of gloves, masks and sometimes even goggles.

Anna Patricia Moreno, 39, waiting in Flushing for her morning ride to the Westchester County nail salon where she works, said her employer was now letting the manicurists take lunch breaks. CreditNicole Bengiveno/The New York Times

“Our salary is getting close to the standard level of minimum wage,” he added. “And it feels good.”

Other workers are reveling in new freedoms, including a previously unheard-of luxury in many salons: a lunch break.

“Even if we were hungry, they wouldn’t let us eat,” said Ms. Moreno, 39, the Westchester manicurist, referring to the owners of her salon, as she waited for a van in Flushing, Queens, to take her to work. “The boss would say, ‘No, no, no, so busy!’ One client and then another, and then another, and then another. Sometimes we couldn’t even take a sip of water.”

“Now, it’s different,” she said. “If we want to eat, we just say: ‘I’m going to eat.’ And she says to the client: ‘Can you wait five minutes for her? She needs lunch.’ And now the clients understand.”

Inside Angel Nails at 174 Third Avenue, near 16th Street, the bill of rights for salon workers is posted directly behind the counter for all to see. CreditNicole Bengiveno/The New York Times

But in some corners of the city, attempts to stamp out exploitation have led to some unintended consequences. At Flower Nail & Spa on the Upper East Side, workers said they cheered at first when their boss began to let them leave at closing time, instead of squeezing in latecomers for an evening manicure.

What initially seemed like a boon, however, soon emerged as something else. Manicurists are limited now to working just four days in what workers say appears be a move by their employer to avoid violating labor laws that require extra fees for overtime hours. So, these days, while they may make it home for dinner, some manicurists are taking on second jobs.

“I know the article tried to help us to work less, with higher pay and get good benefits, from good owners,” said an employee who works at Flower Nail and a second salon in Westchester, and who declined to give her name. “But for some employees it created a worse situation.”

Flower’s owner did not respond to a request for comment.

Peng Xu, a manicurist at a salon on Long Island, said pay had increased to about $8 an hour from $6 since an investigation was published by The New York Times in early May. CreditNicole Bengiveno/The New York Times

Notably, the survey, which was similar to one conducted a year ago, also showed that prices of manicures and pedicures had remained largely unchanged. In other words, it does not appear that owners are increasing prices so they can pay their workers more.

State regulators, however, have clearly been clamping down on the industry. Besides the several hundred inspections that have been conducted by the new state task force, the Labor Department has opened investigations in response to 63 complaints of unpaid or underpaid workers in the last month. In the past, the department typically opened only two or three dozen nail salon cases a year across the state in response to complaints.

The task force’s random inspections are continuing, officials said. Before The Times’s investigation, there had been only one previous state sweep of nail salons, which occurred last year and included raids of 29 businesses. The sweep took place a month after The Times inquired about the Labor Department’s enforcement record on salons.

Manicurists on their way to work from the busy morning pickup area at Union Street and 39th Avenue in Flushing, Queens. CreditNicole Bengiveno/The New York Times

“It’s too much; we can’t wear this all the time,” Ms. Lee said. “Our job is not that dangerous a job.”

The state has actually pulled back on one of the new health rules. Officials initially decreed that the respirator masks had to be worn by manicurists working with acrylic powder; now the masks just have to be available. Frank Sobrino, a spokesman for the governor’s office, said there was concern the masks would present health complications for people with respiratory problems.

State officials have so far held a half-dozen information sessions for workers and owners on the new rules, including one recently in Flushing that was attended by 500 people. The city’s Department of Consumer Affairs has also been visiting salons to educate them on regulations. Officials there said they will have visited some 2,900 salons by early August.

“A large part of this is about getting to the workers, that they get the information and understand that these resources are available to them,” said Alphonso B. David, the governor’s counsel. “That’s one of the biggest challenges.”

Some of the hardest to quantify changes in the industry have involved the customers themselves. In the weeks after the publication of The Times’s investigation, customers would frequently ask the people doing their nails if they were being mistreated, salon owners and workers said. Such lines of inquiry have now died down, they said. But many customers are still tipping more — some manicurists said tips are up by 5 to 15 percent — and in cash, in an effort to make sure their manicurist gets and keeps it.

Some patrons have gone further, choosing to stay away from salons entirely. Ellen Killoran, a journalist from Brooklyn, said she had ended her ritual of a weekly manicure, as had some of her friends. She said she was unwilling to patronize an unethical shop but was unable to tell which salons were operating in accordance with the law.


“We are not going to know which salons, in particular, are violating labor law and which are not,” Ms. Killoran said. “I’m not comfortable with too much of a gray area.”

Just how many others have made similar decisions is difficult to say. But June, which marks the advent of sandal weather, the industry’s biggest season, was unusually slow for many shops.

“My business has been struck severely,” said Rong Gao, the owner of Shangri-La Nails & Spa on the Upper East Side, who says abusive salons are the exception. She is considering closing her shop because she is barely able to afford the rent of approximately $10,000 a month. “The salon industry is hit hard this time.”

Correction: July 16, 2015 

An earlier version of this article referred incorrectly to the owner of Shangri-La Nails & Spa on the Upper East Side. The owner, Rong Gao, is a woman.
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