The New York Times has spent the better part of a year conducting a fairly groundbreaking investigation of labor conditions for nail salon workers, and the first installment in their “Unvarnished” series is clear, chilling, and heartbreaking to the last word. Reporter Sarah Maslin Nir starts with a scene of young immigrant women standing on a street corner in Queens, ready to be picked up in vans and dropped off at salons where the beginners among them will have to pay salon owners for the privilege of doing manicures—waiting months, usually, before meriting their eventual starting wage, which amounts to tips plus a rough average of $10-30 per day.

The piece is notable for the language hoops its reporters had to jump through—they interviewed more than 150 salon owners and workers, with translators in four languages, carefully navigating the scared, often-undocumented status of the latter category that has made the rampant, typical, customary nail salon rights violations so easy to overlook by the New York Labor Department (which just did its first nail salon sweep last year). “The Price of Nice Nails,” crucially, also comes with three translation options up top—for Chinese, Korean and Spanish.

Of the “more than 100” workers that the Times talked to—many of them working with fake names on their nametags, scrubbing the feet of rich Manhattan women scrolling through iPads without ever speaking to them—only “about a quarter said they were paid an amount that was the equivalent of New York State’s minimum hourly wage.” Additionally, “all but three workers, however, had wages withheld in other ways that would be considered illegal, such as never getting overtime.” There’s a brutal racial caste system (Koreans, then Chinese, then Hispanic workers, the latter of which are openly disparaged by the salon owners interviewed in the piece) and an acceptance of practices like being monitored by video, being verbally berated or physically abused, having tips skimmed, and being financially humiliated:

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.

Most of the workers interviewed slept in flophouses, unable to afford anything else, and unable—after workweeks that sometimes stretch to near 70 hours—to take the English classes they intended to, or even to take care of their families: “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.”


Part of the problem in New York City specifically is that there are so many salons; LA and San Francisco, the cities that come the closest in terms of salons per capita, have about half the saturation that NYC does. Related to this is the fact that manicures are cheap as hell in NYC—cheaper here than almost anywhere, despite the cost of living being so high.

The consequent economic, financial, emotional and spiritual diminishment of the salon workers is disgusting. For example:

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 shyly.

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.


Later on in her story:

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 off.”

That night her cousins threw her a party. The next payday she learned her day wage would amount to under $3 an hour.


This is an essential read, and even if you don’t get your nails done in salons, it’s exactly the type of local, female-dominated labor issue that New York City women should be motivated to organize around. The whole thing is here (and Vice interviewed Sarah Maslin Nir, the reporter, if you’re interested in how the story came together). And, although our informal NYC surveys suggest a 20 percent tip rate is okay, maybe this article will spur manicure-getters unlikely to change their ways to at least do way more next time, and the time after, and every time after that.

Image via Elbrozzie/Flickr

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