New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has ordered a task force to stop the wage theft and health hazards faced by thousands who work in his state’s nail salon industry. The action was prompted by a lengthy investigation published in the New York Times on May 11.
Here’s the original story by reporter Sarah Maslin Nir. Photo is by Nicole Bengiveno.
The women begin to arrive just before 8 a.m., every day and without fail, until
there are thickets of young Asian and Hispanic women on nearly every street
corner along the main roads of Flushing, Queens.
As if on cue, cavalcades of battered Ford Econoline vans grumble to the
curbs, and the women jump in. It is the start of another workday for legions of
New York City’s manicurists, who are hurtled to nail salons across three states.
They will not return until late at night, after working 10 to 12hour shifts,
hunched over fingers and toes.
On a morning last May, Jing Ren, a 20-year-old who had recently arrived
from China, stood among them for the first time, headed to a job at a salon in a
Long Island strip mall. Her hair neat and glasses perpetually askew, she
clutched her lunch and a packet of nail tools that manicurists must bring from
job to job.
Tucked in her pocket was $100 in carefully folded bills for another
expense: the fee the salon owner charges each new employee for her job. The
deal was the same as it is for beginning manicurists in almost any salon in the
New York area. She would work for no wages, subsisting on meager tips, until
her boss decided she was skillful enough to merit a wage.
It would take nearly three months before her boss paid her. Thirty dollars
Once an indulgence reserved for special occasions, manicures have
become a grooming staple for women across the economic spectrum. There
are now more than 17,000 nail salons in the United States, according to census
data. The number of salons in New York City alone has more than tripled over
a decade and a half to nearly 2,000 in 2012.
But largely overlooked is the rampant exploitation of those who toil in the
industry. The New York Times interviewed more than 150 nail salon workers
and owners, in four languages, and found that a vast majority of workers are
paid below minimum wage; sometimes they are not even paid. Workers
endure all manner of humiliation, including having their tips docked as
punishment for minor transgressions, constant video monitoring by owners,
even physical abuse. Employers are rarely punished for labor and other
Asianlanguage newspapers are rife with classified ads listing manicurist
jobs paying so little the daily wage can at first glance appear to be a typo. Ads
in Chinese in both Sing Tao Daily and World Journal for NYC Nail Spa, a
secondstory salon on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, advertised a starting
wage of $10 a day. The rate was confirmed by several workers.
Lawsuits filed in New York courts allege a long list of abuses: the salon in
East Northport, N.Y., where workers said they were paid just $1.50 an hour
during a 66hour workweek; the Harlem salon that manicurists said charged
them for drinking the water, yet on slow days paid them nothing at all; the
minichain of Long Island salons whose workers said they were not only
underpaid but also kicked as they sat on pedicure stools, and verbally abused.
Last year, the New York State Labor Department, in conjunction with
several other agencies, conducted its first nail salon sweep ever — about a
month after The Times sent officials there an inquiry regarding their
enforcement record with the industry. Investigators inspected 29 salons and
found 116 wage violations.
Among the more than 100 workers interviewed by The Times, only about
a quarter said they were paid an amount that was the equivalent of New York
State’s minimum hourly wage. All but three workers, however, had wages
withheld in other ways that would be considered illegal, such as never getting
The juxtapositions in nail salon workers’ lives can be jarring. Many spend
their days holding hands with women of unimaginable affluence, at salons on
Madison Avenue and in Greenwich, Conn. Away from the manicure tables they
crash in flophouses packed with bunk beds, or in fetid apartments shared by as
many as a dozen strangers.
Ms. Ren worked at Bee Nails, a chandelierspangled salon in Hicksville,
N.Y., where leather pedicure chairs are equipped with iPads on articulated
arms so patrons can scroll the screens without smudging their manicures.
They rarely spoke more than a few words to Ms. Ren, who, like most
manicurists, wore a fake name chosen by a supervisor on a tag pinned to her
chest. She was “Sherry.” She worked in silence, sloughing off calluses from
customers’ feet or clipping dead skin from around their fingernail beds.
At night she returned to sleep jammed in a onebedroom apartment in
Flushing with her cousin, her cousin’s father and three strangers. Beds
crowded the living room, each cordoned off by shower curtains hung from the
ceiling. When lights flicked on in the kitchen, cockroaches skittered across the
Almost all of the workers interviewed by The Times, like Ms. Ren, had
limited English; many are in the country illegally. The combination leaves
Some workers suffer more acutely. Nail salons are governed by their own
rituals and mores, a hidden world behind the glass exteriors and cute corner
shops. In it, a rigid racial and ethnic caste system reigns in modernday New
York City, dictating not only pay but also how workers are treated.
Korean workers routinely earn twice as much as their peers, valued above
others by the Korean owners who dominate the industry and who are often
shockingly plainspoken in their disparagement of workers of other
backgrounds. Chinese workers occupy the next rung in the hierarchy;
Hispanics and other nonAsians are at the bottom.
The typical cost of a manicure in the city helps explain the abysmal pay. A
survey of more than 105 Manhattan salons by The Times found an average
price of about $10.50. The countrywide average is almost double that,
according to a 2014 survey by Nails Magazine, an industry publication.
With fees so low, someone must inevitably pay the price.
“You can be assured, if you go to a place with rockbottom prices, that
chances are the workers’ wages are being stolen,” said Nicole Hallett, a lecturer
at Yale Law School who has worked on wage theft cases in salons. “The costs
are borne by the lowwage workers who are doing your nails.”
In interviews, some owners readily acknowledged how little they paid
their workers. Ms. Ren’s boss, Lian Sheng Sun, who goes by Howard, at first
denied doing anything wrong, but then said it was just how business was done.
“Salons have different ways of conducting their business,” he said. “We run
our business our own way to keep our small business surviving.”
Many owners said they were helping new immigrants by giving them jobs.
“I want to change the first generation coming here and getting disgraced,
and getting humiliated,” said Roger Liu, 28, an immigrant from China, seated
inside the salon he owned, Relaxing Town Nails and Spa in Huntington
Station, N.Y. As he spoke last summer, an employee, a woman in her 50s,
paced the salon, studying a scrap of paper scribbled with the steps of a
pedicure, chanting them to herself quietly in Chinese.
It was her first week working in a salon, she said. Mr. Liu was not paying
Compelled to work endless hours just to get by, the manicurists live lives
that unspool almost entirely within the walls of their salons. An underground
economy has sprung up in Flushing and other city neighborhoods where salon
workers live, to help them cope. On weekdays, women walk from door to door
like Pied Pipers, taking nail salon workers’ children to school for a fee. Many
manicurists pay caregivers as much as half their wages to take their babies six
days a week, 24 hours a day, after finding themselves unable to care for them
at night and still wake up to paint nails.
Jing Ren usually spent days sleeping in her slim pallet a few feet from the
bed of her 24yearold cousin, Xue Sun, also a manicurist. She had no time to
make other friends.
She eventually started taking English classes, hoping to grasp onto a new
life, but she feared the gravitational pull of this one.
“I would feel petrified,” she said, “thinking that I’ll be doing this for the
rest of my life.”
Low Price, Low Pa
As far as small businesses go, it is relatively easy to open a nail salon.
Just a few thousand dollars is needed for things like pedicure chairs with
whirlpool baths. Little English is required, and there are few licensing hoops to
jump through. Many skip them altogether. Overhead is minimal: rent and
some new bottles of polish each month — and the rockbottom wages of
Beyond the low barriers for entry, manicurists, owners and others who
have closely followed the nail industry are hard pressed to say definitively why
salons have proliferated.
In the 1990s, nail polish brands began to market more directly to
consumers, helping to fuel demand, according to Nails Magazine. Polishes also
became more sophisticated; they last longer and are easier to remove.
Census data show the number of salons in New York surged through the
2000s, far outstripping the rest of the country. Growth dimmed slightly during
the recession, as lacquered nails remained an affordable treat for many, before
But as nail salons have mushroomed, it has become harder to turn a
profit, some owners said. Manicure prices have not budged much from 1990s
levels, according to veteran workers. Neither have wages.
With their gleaming glass fronts, the salons seem to display their inner
workings as transparently as a department store displays a holiday window.
But much of how salons operate and how workers are treated is kept
deliberately opaque to the outside world.
Among the hidden customs are how new manicurists get started. Most
must hand over cash — usually $100 to $200, but sometimes much more — as
a training fee. Weeks or months of work in a kind of unpaid apprenticeship
Ms. Ren spent almost three months painting on pedicures and slathering
feet with paraffin wax before one afternoon in the late summer when her boss
drew her into a waxing room and told her she would finally be paid.
“I just burst into laughter unconsciously,” Ms. Ren said. “I have been
working for so long while making zero money; now finally my hard work paid
That night her cousins threw her a party. The next payday she learned her
day wage would amount to under $3 an hour.
Step into the prim confines of almost any salon and workers paid
astonishingly low wages can be readily found. At May’s Nails Salon on 14th
Street in the West Village of Manhattan, where a photo of the singer Gwen
Stefani with a manicurist hung on the wall, new employees must pay $100,
then work unpaid for several weeks, before they are started at $30 or $40 a
day, according to a worker. A man who identified himself as the owner, but
would give his name only as Greg, said the salon did not charge employees for
their jobs, but would not say how much they are paid.
At Sona Nails on First Avenue near Stuyvesant Town, a worker said she
made $35 a day. Sona Grung, the owner of Sona Nails, denied paying below
minimum wage, yet defended the practice, particularly of underpaying new
workers. “When a beginner comes in, they don’t know anything, and they give
you a job,” she said. “If you work in a nail salon for $35, it’s very good.”
Nail salon workers are generally considered “tipped workers” under state
and federal labor laws. Employers in New York are permitted to pay such
workers slightly less than the state’s $8.75 minimum hourly wage, based on a
complex calculation of how much a worker is making in tips. But interviews
with scores of workers revealed rates of pay so low that the socalled tip
calculation is virtually meaningless. None reported receiving supplemental pay
from their bosses, as is legally required when their day’s tips fall short of the
minimum wage. Overtime pay is almost unheardof in the industry, even
though workers routinely work up to 12 hours a day, six or even seven days a
Inside the hive of the salon, there are typically three ranks of workers.
“Big Job” employees are veterans, experts at sculpting false nails out of acrylic
dust. It is the most lucrative salon job, yet many younger manicurists avoid it
because of the specter of serious health issues, including miscarriages and
cancer, associated with inhaling fumes and clouds of plastic particles.
“Medium Job” workers do regular manicures, while “Little Job” is the category
of the beginners. They launder hot hand towels and sweep toenail clippings.
They do work others do not want to do, such as pedicures.
More experienced workers usually earn $50 to $70 per day, sometimes
even $80. Their pay, though, still typically amounts to significantly less than
minimum wage, given their long hours.
In the poorer pockets of the city, at lowtraffic salons in the Bronx and
Queens, many workers are not paid a base wage at all, only a commission.
Nora Cacho was paid about 50 percent of the price of every manicure or
lip wax she did at a Harlem shop that was part of a chain, Envy Nails. She
frequently earned about $200 for each 66hour workweek — about $3 an
hour. In sandal season, if she was lucky, she left the shop with slightly more —
$300 each week, she said. On snowy days, Ms. Cacho, who is part of a classaction
lawsuit against the chain, would return home with nothing. The chain’s
lawyer did not respond to requests for comment.
Ms. Cacho, who is from Ecuador, initially saw the industry as her financial
salvation, as do many other immigrants. But what seems a way up usually
gives way to a grinding existence.
Salon workers describe a culture of subservience that extends far beyond
the pampering of customers. Tips or wages are often skimmed or never
delivered, or deducted as punishment for things like spilled bottles of polish.
At her Harlem salon, Ms. Cacho said she and her colleagues had to buy new
clothes in whatever color the manager decided was fashionable that week.
Cameras are regularly hidden in salons, piping live feeds directly to owners’
smartphones and tablets.
Qing Lin, 47, a manicurist who has worked on the Upper East Side for the
last 10 years, still gets emotional when recounting the time a splash of nail
polish remover marred a customer’s patent Prada sandals. When the woman
demanded compensation, the $270 her boss pressed into the woman’s hand
came out of the manicurist’s pay. Ms. Lin was asked not to return.
“I am worth less than a shoe,” she said.
An Ethnic Caste System
As the throngs of manicurists gather in Flushing, Queens, every morning,
the patter of “good mornings” is mostly in Chinese and Spanish, with the
occasional snatches of Tibetan or Nepali. Korean is hardly ever heard among
these workers heading to salons outside New York City, many of them hours
But to the customer settling into the comfort of a pedicure chair in
Manhattan, it can seem as if nearly the entire work force is Korean.
The contrast stems from the stark ethnic hierarchy imposed by nail salon
owners. Seventy percent to 80 percent of salons in the city are Koreanowned,
according to the Korean American Nail Salon Association.
Korean manicurists, particularly if they are youthful and attractive,
typically have their pick of the most desirable jobs in the industry — shiny
shops on Madison Avenue and in other affluent parts of the city. NonKorean
manicurists are often forced into less desirable jobs in the boroughs outside
Manhattan or even farther out from the city, where customers are typically
fewer and tips often paltry.
In general, Korean workers earn at least 15 percent to 25 percent more
than their counterparts, but the disparity can sometimes be much greater,
according to manicurists, beauty school instructors and owners.
Some bosses deliberately prey on the desperation of Hispanic manicurists,
who are often drowning under large debts owed to “coyotes” who smuggled
them across the border, workers and advocates say.
Many Korean owners are frank about their prejudices. “Spanish
employees” are not as smart as Koreans, or as sanitary, said Mal Sung Noh, 68,
who is known as Mary, at the front desk of Rose Nails, a salon she owns on the
Upper East Side.
Ms. Noh’s salon sits behind the construction barricades of the Second
Avenue subway line. Perhaps as a result, she employs a handful of Hispanic
women. (Less lucrative shops on outoftheway streets or on the second
stories of buildings tend to be more diverse.) Ms. Noh said she kept her
Hispanic manicurists at the lowest rung of work. “They don’t want to learn
more,” she said.
Ethnic discrimination imbues other aspects of salon life. Male pedicure
customers are despised by many manicurists for their thick toenails and haircovered
knuckles. When a man comes into the store, almost invariably a nonKorean
worker is first draft for his foot bath, salon workers said.
Ana Luisa Camas, 32, an Ecuadorean immigrant, said that at a Koreanowned
Connecticut salon where she worked, she and her Hispanic colleagues
were made to sit in silence during their entire 12hour shifts, while the Korean
manicurists were free to chat. “For two years I suffered from headaches,” she
said. “It was just the stress that was killing me.”
Lhamo Dolma, 39, a manicurist from Tibet who goes by Jackey, recalled a
former job at a Brooklyn salon where she had to eat lunch every day standing
in a kitchenette with the shop’s other nonKorean workers, while her Korean
counterparts ate at their desks.
“Their country people, they are completely free,” she said in an interview
in her house in Queens, seated on a low settee beneath her household’s
Buddhist shrine. She began to cry. “Why do they make us two different?” she
said. “Everybody is the same.”
A Scared Newcomer
There was a bright blue Siamese fighting fish in a Mason jar in a corner of
the onebedroom apartment where Ms. Ren lived with her cousin and four
other adults. It rested on a table made from a broken cabinet door. Its name
was July, after the month she was told she would finally earn a wage.
It was a rare moment of accomplishment for Ms. Ren, now 21, in her early
days in New York City. She had holed up indoors for weeks after arriving, too
scared to go outside.
She wished she could be like her older cousin and roommate, Ms. Sun,
who emerged from their apartment in Flushing each morning looking more
like her customers than a manicurist, in bargainstore imitations of Hermès
and Chanel. Ms. Sun woke up early each morning to steam her outfit — even
her denim shorts — so that all traces of their grim quarters stayed shut up
behind the apartment door.
When business at the salon began to slow in late 2013, Ms. Sun, who goes
by Michelle, had an idea. She hopped a cheap bus south to Florida, a place she
knew little about other than that it was always warm. She figured sandals —
and pedicures — were yearround staples. She wandered from shop to shop
until she found work.
Upon her return in spring 2014, Ms. Sun was upset to find Ms. Ren nearly
a shutin. Ms. Sun cajoled her younger charge to call salons listing openings
online, taking the phone from her when she was too scared to speak to shop
The day after, Ms. Ren stood on the corner of Franklin Avenue and
Kissena Boulevard, her lunchbox in hand, waiting for a van to deliver her to
her new salon — where, she did not know.
At Bee Nails, the salon in Hicksville, Ms. Ren fumbled even the most
simple tasks at first, overwhelmed by nerves. She spent her days making piles
of paper twists to swaddle pedicured toes, or cleaning up nail clippings. Her
hands trembled when she tried to paint even her own nails in the break room.
She refused to join the other Little Job workers for practice sessions, watching
A week in, her first manicure was on a man. His girlfriend sat next to him,
whispering to him about the manicurist’s shaking hands. Ms. Ren said later
her hands only shook harder.
“I tried to calm down on my way back in the van — it’s a long trip and
quiet,” she said. “I told myself that I have to prove that I’m capable of
conquering all these difficulties and make it.”
At home she stayed up late practicing manicures on her cousin and
drafted careful ledgers of her expenses. Her sole income was a few dollars a
day in tips, but she was meticulous, tabulating each banana and even her first
ice cream from a chiming truck. Beside a doodle of a cone, she wrote “$1.50.”
Next to it, in English: “It’s good!”
By October, Ms. Ren had mostly tamed her anxiety. One Sunday morning,
as a visitor watched, she sat balanced froglike on a small stool as she hoisted
up the feet of a woman in a pink Juicy Couture track suit, deftly scratching off
calluses with a roughened foam brick. The woman scrolled on her phone and
picked at her cuticles. She addressed Ms. Ren once, when she warned the
manicurist of a blister on her heel. Every so often, Ms. Ren sent a nail polish
bottle or cuticle nipper flying, but she covered up her error with a titter and
useful English phrases her boss encouraged her to practice. “So sorry,” she
Some evenings, Ms. Sun’s father, a line cook in Manhattan, would whip
up elaborate meals of softshelled turtle and taro for the young women that
reminded them of home. At night, he tucked them into bed with words of
encouragement, before drawing closed the wall of curtain that separated his
bed from theirs. Try to think of customers’ feet as pig’s feet, he would urge.
Don’t they love that Chinese delicacy when he makes it?
As the cold set in, a time of year when many bosses fire much of their
salon staff, Ms. Ren grew anxious again. On slow days, she was sent to stand
beside the highway in front of the salon in her green uniform bib, waving
fliers. A customer review on the salon’s Yelp page described it as “basically a
sweatshop,” and she felt it. Sometimes, she spent entire days dusting hundreds
of individual plastic boxes of customers’ personal nail tool kits.
“I felt what I had to do was so pointless,” she later said.
ehind the Mercede
A gold pendant embossed with Chinese characters and entwined with red
thread hangs on the door of a twostory house in Center Moriches, on Long
Island, about an hour’s drive east from where Ms. Ren works in Hicksville. A
wide creek that empties into Moriches Bay lies on the other side of the street.
A MercedesBenz sport utility vehicle parks in the driveway.
It is the home of the owner of Nail Love, a salon in a nearby shopping
center. The charm on the door invokes financial prosperity for the house’s
inhabitants. But the lives of the halfdozen manicurists who bunk in the
basement are anything but prosperous.
They are employees of Nail Love. Their dimly lit warren is a barracks
provided by the salon’s owner, a common arrangement for workers in salons
outside commuting distance from New York City. It saves owners money and
sometimes even turns a profit. In some other such situations, workers must
pay rent to their bosses.
Nail salon owners are often the success stories of their immigrant
communities. Some owners rose from the ranks of manicurists themselves. In
interviews, many owners expressed a vision of themselves as heroic,
shouldering the burden of training workers and the risk of employing people
who are not legally permitted to work in the United States. Fees extracted from
new workers like Ms. Ren are proper compensation for the inconvenience of
providing training, they said. Several owners said they felt betrayed when their
workers quit or sued.
“They don’t stop to think how difficult it is nowadays to keep the door of
our business open to service people,” Romelia M. Agudo, the former owner of
a Park Slope salon, Romy’s Nails, wrote in an affidavit asking a judge to
dismiss a lawsuit by two of her employees who said they were underpaid and
denied lunch breaks.
Many owners defended their business methods as the only way to stay
Ansik Nam, former president of the Korean American Nail Salon
Association, said that in the early 2000s, scores of owners held an emergency
meeting at a Korean restaurant in Flushing, hoping to prevent manicure and
pedicure prices from sagging further. He said no agreement was reached.
The association’s current president, Sangho Lee, declined a request to
address issues of underpayment. So many owners do not pay minimum wage,
he said, that he believed answering any questions would hurt the industry.
Tucked between the hand dryers of NYC Nail Spa on the Upper West Side,
where the beginners’ wage is $10 a day, the grim math of the nail salon
industry is seemingly laid bare on a neatly typed sign, urging customers in
broken English to tip well: “Less tips make us hard to hire good workers, or we
have to pay higher wages to hire them, which might also cause a raise on the
In an interview, the owner’s wife, who would give only her first name,
Hwu, said the salon’s sales exceeded $400,000 a year but there were
significant expenses as well, like rent and payroll. Speaking at the salon in
February, shortly after her husband dropped her off in their Cadillac S.U.V.,
she said some of her beginners were not paid $10 a day. She pointed to a male
manicurist on his first day on the job: If he did not show promise, she said, he
would not be paid at all.
The owners of Iris Nails, a chain with shops in Manhattan and Brooklyn,
had seven stores that generated sales of $8 million per year, according to a
2012 article in Korea Daily, a KoreanAmerican newspaper. At the two Iris
salons on Madison Avenue on the Upper East Side, longtime workers
described starting out at wages of $30 and $40 a day. The owners did not
respond to requests for comment.
The contrast between owners’ and workers’ lives can be stark.
Sophia Hong, who owned Madison Nails in Scarsdale, N.Y., prides herself
on her art collection, including at least one work by Park Soo Keun, a Korean
artist who had a painting sell for nearly $2 million at Christie’s in 2012. The
art hangs in her home in Bayside, Queens, one of several properties she owns,
according to property records, including a Manhattan apartment in a luxury
building overlooking Columbus Circle. In 2010, she was sued by an employee
at her Scarsdale salon for failing to pay overtime. The case was settled. Ms.
Hong declined to comment.
In rare instances when owners have been found guilty of wage theft,
salons have often been quickly sold, sometimes to relatives. The original
proprietors vanish, along with their assets, according to prosecutors. Even if
they do not, collecting back wages is difficult. Owners can claim they do not
have the means to pay, and it is often impossible to prove otherwise, given how
unreliable salons’ financial records are.
Despite winning a landmark court award of over $474,000 in 2012 for
underpayment, six manicurists from a chain of Long Island salons under the
name Babi have so far received less than a quarter of that, they said. The
chain’s owner, In Bae Kim, said he did not have the money, even though
records show he sold his house for $1.13 million and a commercial property for
$2 million just before the trial.
Mr. Kim was arrested last year by the state attorney general’s office on
charges of harassing a manicurist at the worker’s new job. He pleaded guilty to
disorderly conduct on Jan. 3 and was sentenced to time served — eight days in
Lack of Invetigation
During the nearly three months Ms. Ren worked unpaid in the Long
Island nail salon, like many manicurists, she had no idea that it was against
the law, or that the $30 day wage her boss finally paid her was also illegally
low. As an immigrant, she felt happy to have any work at all, she said, and
scared to complain. Furthermore, who would listen?
The Labor Department is the New York State agency responsible for
monitoring wage violations. An examination by The Times of the department’s
enforcement database dating from 2008, obtained under the state’s Freedom
of Information Law, found the department typically opens two or three dozen
nail salon cases a year across the entire state. According to census data, there
were more than 3,600 nail salons in the state in 2012, the most recent year for
which figures were available.
The department opened a vast majority of these cases in response to
worker complaints, as opposed to initiating its own investigations, the data
A team of investigators regularly performs undercover sweeps of
businesses suspected of breaking the law, but the agency had never conducted
a sweep of nail salons until last year, said Christopher White, a spokesman for
the Labor Department. He declined last month to say more about the salons in
the operation or the violations found, because the investigation had not yet
been closed. But a review of the 37 cases opened in 2014 showed that almost
onethird of them involved shops from a single chain, Envy Nails, the one
facing a classaction lawsuit from its workers.
When the department does investigate a salon, more than 80 percent of
the time the agency finds workers have been unpaid or underpaid and tries to
recover the money, The Times’s analysis showed.
The department declined to make anyone available to discuss its
investigative work on the record. It took nine months of repeated inquiries
from The Times for the department to turn over part of its enforcement
Only a small number of the workers interviewed by The Times said they
had ever seen an investigator, from any government agency, at their salon.
Among the Labor Department’s 115 investigators statewide — 56 are
based in New York City — 18 speak Spanish and 8 speak Chinese, essential
tools for questioning immigrant workers to uncover whether they are being
exploited. But just two speak Korean, according to the department.
Department officials say all of their inspectors have access to interpreting
When investigators try to interview them, manicurists are frequently
reluctant to cooperate, more so than in any other industry, according to a
Labor Department official involved who spoke on the condition of anonymity
because the official was not permitted to talk with reporters. “It’s really the
only industry we see that in,” the person said, explaining that it most likely
indicated just how widespread exploitation is in nail salons. “They are totally
running scared in this industry.”
Manicurists are also required to be licensed, but this is another area
where enforcement is lax. There are nearly 30,000 licensed nail technicians in
the state, according to the New York Department of State, but numerous
manicurists work without licenses. Licenses are frequently fabricated, bought
Manicurists say that even when government agencies do check on their
employers, evasion is easy.
Lili, a manicurist from Ecuador who is picked up every morning in
Flushing near Ms. Ren, laughs when she recalls the time state inspectors
visited the Westchester County salon where she works. Spotting them, her
boss barked for all the unlicensed workers — there were 10 — to hustle out the
“So we left, we got in the car, and we took a spin around the
neighborhood,” said Lili, who declined to give her surname because she is in
this country illegally. “Twenty, 30 minutes later we returned. After they’d
gone. We put our uniforms back on and we returned to work.”
This past fall, Ms. Ren’s parents arrived from China. Work had dried up
for her mother, an insurance saleswoman, and father, a sometime chef, and
they missed their only child. The visitors stuffed the onebedroom with a total
of eight bodies before Ms. Ren, her mother and her father had to move out.
The manicurist packed up her pet fish, and the family installed itself a few
blocks down Union Street in a dank basement apartment, where for $830 a
month the three share one bedroom.
At work Ms. Ren earned a raise, lifting her spirits. She now made $40 a
Inspired by her cousin, who had enrolled again in English classes, Ms.
Ren signed up as well in October, three days a week. School, she hoped, would
be a way out of a job she had come to loathe, but some days her hands ached
too much to go to class — she could not hold a pencil. Other days she was just
Around the time her first semester of English classes wrapped up, Ms.
Ren asked for another raise. It was then she learned there are actually two
price lists at her salon. One is for customers. The other is jotted down in a
hiddenaway notebook and lists the prices employees must pay the owner to
learn new skills: such as $100 for eyebrow waxing, $100 to learn how to apply
gel and cure it with ultraviolet light. A raise would require a new skill — her
boss suggested eyebrows and gel — and the cash fee.
She was in the nail salon van when her boss told her of the fee, as he drove
her to a different Long Island salon he owns. He shuttles employees between
the two shops, depending upon which is busiest. An iPad propped on the
dashboard played video feeds from both salons. Ms. Ren responded to the new
fee with uncharacteristic furor.
Her boss relented: He would give her a 50 percent discount. She refused.
“I already paid when I first came,” she said. “Now I’m an employee and
have been here for so long. Why do I still have to pay to pick up new skills?”
In an interview, Mr. Sun, Ms. Ren’s boss, said the fees were “deposits” so
employees did not leave with their new skills for another salon, and were
eventually refunded. Ms. Ren said she never got back the $100 she had paid.
For weeks after the van ride, she dreamed of quitting. But there was
another semester of English classes in the spring, and though her parents
pledged to help support her, they could not do it alone.
The final affront was a red envelope embossed in gold, a traditional Lunar
New Year gift her boss placed in her hands in February, the Chinese character
for happiness and luck gleaming from the paper. She opened it to find just
She quit on March 8. Her boss said nothing; one colleague hugged her
goodbye. After 10 months she had made about $10,000, she said.
Last month, she found a $65aday job at another nail salon.
By then, her parents had also found work. Her father is a cook at a
Her mother? She became a manicurist, for $30 a day.
Reporting was contributed by Sarah Cohen, Jiha Ham, Jeanne Li, Yuhan Liu,
Julie Turkewitz, Isvett Verde, YeongUng Yang and Heyang Zhang, and research
by Susan C. Beachy.