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“Putting their life on the line doing your nails”: What salon workers face in the pandemic

Their work puts them at high risk, but most can’t afford to stay home.

A nail technician with a client in Orlando, Florida. The state permitted barber shops and salons to reopen on May 11.
Paul Hennessy/Echoes Wire/Barcroft Media via Getty Images
Anna North is a senior correspondent for Vox, where she covers American family life, work, and education. Previously, she was an editor and writer at the New York Times. She is also the author of three novels, including the New York Times bestseller Outlawed.

Nail technician Ivy Nguyen has spent 20 years breathing fumes from polishes, removers, and acrylics as she does her customers’ manicures.

As a result, she sometimes has difficulty breathing, she told Vox through an interpreter. Her eyes water. She believes the chemicals have made her immunocompromised, she said.

And now she’s facing the threat of Covid-19.

The salon where Nguyen worked in Lakewood, California, closed on March 19 as the pandemic worsened, and Nguyen isn’t sure when it will open again. But some salons in California are pressing to reopen soon, and manicurists are already back at work in many other states. While Nguyen hopes to stay out of the salon through June, she can’t afford to be without income forever. As she told Vox, she has “no choice but to go back to work.”

She’s not alone. As nail salons around the country reopen in the coming weeks, workers face unique risks. Many, like Nguyen, have developed health problems they believe are related to the chemicals they inhale on the job. One 2006 study of Colorado manicurists found that 20 percent had a cough most days, and those who worked with acrylic nails were three times as likely to get asthma at work as people who worked in other industries, according to the New York Times. These conditions could put them at higher risk of serious illness if they become infected with the coronavirus, many fear.

Meanwhile, the realities of nail salon work make it difficult to mitigate the risk of infection. “There’s really no way for you to socially distance and get a manicure,” Nicole Hallett, a law professor at the University of Chicago who has represented salon workers, told Vox.

In fact, California Gov. Gavin Newsom made headlines on May 7 by saying that the first case of community spread of the coronavirus in the state happened in a nail salon, though he was later criticized for making the comment without specifics to back it up.

Whatever the case in California, nail salon workers around the country feel they are at disproportionate risk because of the nature of their job. But they will likely be under enormous financial pressure to return to work as soon as their salons reopen, Hallett said. Most nail salon employees are low income, and many are undocumented, meaning they can’t access unemployment benefits or other relief.

Advocates have been calling for better working conditions for salon workers for years, but now, many say, protections like masks and proper ventilation are more necessary than ever. Workers and their advocates are also calling on customers for some empathy and support as salons reopen and manicures and pedicures resume.

“These people are working very closely with you to provide a service that you want,” Dung Nguyen, program and outreach coordinator at the advocacy group California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative, told Vox. In some cases, workers feel “They’re putting their life on the line doing your nails.”

Nail salon workers say their health was at risk on the job long before Covid-19 hit

Working at a nail salon could be a dangerous job long before the pandemic hit, many say. “Nail salon workers work with hundreds, if not thousands, of chemicals,” Dung Nguyen told Vox. “A lot of the workers work up to six to seven days a week, 10- to 12-hour days, so they’re constantly exposed.”

Studies have found that cosmetologists, including nail salon workers, have higher-than-average rates of multiple myeloma, death from Hodgkin’s disease, and low-birth-weight babies, according to a 2015 New York Times investigation that brought new public attention to working conditions in the industry.

Then there are the respiratory ailments. “They come in usually with breathing problems, some symptoms similar to an allergy, and also asthma symptoms — they cannot breathe,” Dr. Charles Hwu told the Times of nail salon workers he has treated.

It’s not just the chemicals — nail salon work has always required close contact with customers, leaving workers vulnerable to a variety of illnesses. Mariwvey Ramirez, who works at a salon in Rego Park, Queens in New York, told Vox through an interpreter that she contracted tuberculosis at work in 2015. Another worker at the salon got sick as well.

“It’s not only that we can contract illnesses from our clients, but we can contract them between workers ourselves,” she said. “It’s a job that really can expose us a lot.”

With the pandemic raging, they worry their chemical exposure puts them at high risk

Now the coronavirus pandemic has created a new set of risks for workers like Ramirez. Nail salons closed alongside other businesses, as state officials issued shelter-in-place orders in March. But salons in many states, including Nevada, Alaska, and Arkansas, have already reopened, according to the New York Times.

Salons in New York, California, and some other hard-hit states remain closed for now. On May 7, Gov. Newsom said in a press briefing that he was “very worried” about transmission of the virus in salons because “this whole thing started in the state of California, the first community spread, in a nail salon.” He was unable to provide details, citing privacy concerns. But many advocates and industry groups were concerned that without specifics, his comments could fuel panic or even anti-Asian racism.

Seventy-six percent of nail salon workers are of Asian descent, according to a 2018 report by the UCLA Labor Center and the California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative. And Asian-Americans have faced a wave of xenophobia and bigotry since the pandemic began, with more than 1,100 physical and verbal attacks documented between late March and mid-April alone, as Vox’s Li Zhou reports. Trump has helped stoke such racism by referring to the novel coronavirus as a “Chinese virus.”

Nail salon workers are afraid that they and their workplaces will be stigmatized, Nguyen of the California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative said. And when Newsom singled out nail salons, “Folks in the nail salon industry felt like it was just another attack on the community.”

Salons are part of Phase 3 in California’s reopening plan, which could be weeks away, according to the Associated Press. But some are pushing to open up sooner, with one trade group planning to sue the state for the right to reopen. Meanwhile, some salons have opened in defiance of state restrictions — when one reopened at the Yuba Sutter Mall in Northern California on May 13, the line stretched out the door, the AP reported.

Many owners want to work with their employees to reopen safely when the time comes, Dung Nguyen said. However, the people actually doing manicures and pedicures will face risks that many owners and other salon employees don’t. For example, Ivy Nguyen said her employer has purchased a plexiglass shield for the receptionist’s station at her salon, but she isn’t sure if manicurists will get shields as well.

And many workers are scared of the risk of Covid-19 if they do go back to work, Dung Nguyen said, especially because of their long history of breathing noxious chemicals. “A lot of them feel like they became immunocompromised because of their work, which makes them even more afraid,” she said.

Still, nail salon workers need income. “I’m really scared that I could get sick from this virus,” says Ramirez, whose tuberculosis is still latent in her body. But, she said, “I’m trying to think positively because I really need to work.”

Workers are calling for labor protections, now more than ever

Despite the dangers of their work, nail salon workers typically make a very low wage. Between 2012 and 2016, the median wage for a full-time nail salon worker was just $9.06 an hour, far below the nationwide median of $20.18 an hour, according to the UCLA/California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative report.

The majority of nail salon workers — 79 percent, according to the report — are immigrants, and many are undocumented. That means they often don’t get health insurance, paid sick days, or other labor protections. And in most cases, undocumented workers can’t get unemployment or access the other benefits in the federal stimulus package.

“We aren’t receiving anything, anything, anything at all,” Ramirez said.

As a result, nail salon workers “may feel pressure to go back to work not only because their employer might be pressuring them.” Also, “they’re trying to put food on the table,” Hallett, the law professor, said.

When they do go back, workers are pushing for reforms that could keep them safer. Ventilation is a key concern, both to protect them from toxic chemicals and to stem the spread of viral particles. Ivy Nguyen, the California salon worker, is especially concerned about this because her salon is very small, with no back door or windows to provide air circulation, she said.

Masks are another issue. Workers have been pushing for years for the right to wear masks to protect them from chemical fumes, but some salons have discouraged them because they make clients uncomfortable, Hallett said. Ramirez says her salon allowed her to wear a mask prior to the pandemic if she brought her own, but customers sometimes asked her to take it off, claiming they couldn’t hear her properly.

Now, she says, salons need to be providing masks and gloves for all workers, she said.

Other safety measures, including spacing out workstations and limiting the number of people in salons at one time, could help protect workers as well, Dung Nguyen said. The California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative is also calling for tighter regulation of nail polishes and other products to protect workers from toxic chemicals. “Folks shouldn’t have to diminish their quality of life because they choose a certain profession,” Nguyen said.

Meanwhile, the New York Nail Salon Workers Association is backing a state bill requiring health and safety training for salon owners and workers. The group has also established a fund to help unemployed workers.

Coronavirus relief packages should also include undocumented workers, Hallett said, to make sure that nail salon workers and others can actually get benefits when their workplaces are closed. The House Democrats’ latest stimulus bill, the HEROES Act, would provide payments to unauthorized immigrants, as Vox’s Nicole Narea reports.

And, workers and their advocates say, customers need to understand the risks people face in doing their nails. That includes wearing a mask themselves. Ivy Nguyen has seen news coverage of people refusing to wear masks, and she’s concerned about what would happen if she or one of her coworkers had to ask someone to put on a mask, especially with the prevalence of anti-Asian racism during the pandemic.

Ramirez, too, would like clients to take her safety into account when they get a manicure. “I really love my work. I do it with great pleasure and with all of my best energy,” she said. “What I would like our clients to do is to join our cause.”