On Tuesday morning, Yanelia Raminerz, a manicurist who has worked for Envy Nails for the last eight years, stood outside one of the New York chain’s Bronx locations. The shop’s sign, rendered in a delicate curlicued script, rose behind her. “If I am afraid, and I don’t speak out,” she said in Spanish translated by an interpreter, “no one will.”
Whether or not you’ve been to Envy, perhaps you’ve been to a nail salon like it: a long row of chairs and tables paired with a long line of workers, almost always women, bent over their customers’ fingers and toes. At Envy, customer reviews are terrible nearly across the board. They cite “awful customer service,” a staff with an “attitude,” and a lack of English-language skills. “The girl had no passion for the job she was doing at all,” wrote one reviewer recently, noting her manicurist was “distracted” by her young daughter in the shop. “The chemical small was overwhelming,” wrote another: “Holding my breath wasn’t an option since I’d breathe it in when I passed out.”
You could see these reviews as a sign that Envy employees are poor workers. In another, perhaps more plausible, reading, they are indicative of an overextended and underpaid workforce buffing nails in hazardous conditions.
Like a great number of workers in the city’s 6,000 nail salons, many of them immigrants, Ramirez is paid largely on commission. If no clients come in, she said, she has little income; if she has no customers in the morning, she works late into the evening. “It’s a very unstable and stressful job,” she said. “I have no time to spend with my children,” never knowing when she’ll be able to leave work. Prices, she noted, are low at Envy—a manicure-pedicure runs less than $40—as is the pay. And nail salon workers say that, even with new regulations in place, they still need better ventilation to protect them from the harmful chemicals they work with. “No matter how many times we complain,” she said, “nothing gets better.”
Ramirez, like most of the other 40 or so women gathered in front of Envy on Tuesday, is a member of the Nail Salon Workers Association, an advocacy group that since 2016 has agitated for better conditions for nail technicians. The association provides know-your-rights trainings on immigration and labor law, as well as a licensing program for nail technicians. The small knot of organizers and salon workers in front of Envy hoped to gain greater visibility and political sway, building on state-wide reforms in the industry that have so far, they say, been insufficient. Members relay stories of low pay after decades in the industry, illnesses developed from the long-term inhalation of glues or polishes, their bosses’ attempts to skirt the regulations imposed by lawmakers over the last few years.
According to Amelia de Jesus, who worked for Envy until last year and spoke to the crowd through an interpreter, when the Department of Labor came to her salon, she was told to tell investigators she was simply renting space there. When her statements to the agency weren’t what her managers desired, she says she was punished, moved to another Envy location where she couldn’t count on her regular customers. (Emails and calls to Envy’s registered CEOs seeking comment went unreturned.) She works so much, she told the small crowd assembled in front of the salon, “I don’t know my children.”
“We get dust in our eyes, dust in our noses, we get sick working like that,” said another salon worker, also in Spanish.
Envy is a logical target, though members of NSWA say the issues that plague the franchise are endemic of the industry at large. In 2013, a group of employees filed a class-action suit against Envy and its owners, alleging wage theft: According to the original complaint, employees made between $200 and $300 a week in exchange for working 10-hour days, six days a week. (Envy denied these claims in court; the suit was settled and sealed.) A few years later, a wide-ranging New York Times investigation of the salon industry found that Envy was the subject of nearly a third of all salon-related Department of Labor complaints in 2014.
The Times story found broad abuses over a vast swath of businesses in New York City, including salons charging workers for drinking water and paying as
little as $1.50 an hour. Some housed workers with long commutes in basement barracks under their bosses’ homes, charging them rent. It also documented a systemic lack of governmental interest in the problem: As members of a largely female, largely immigrant underclass, nail salon workers were rarely protected by the agencies that would have otherwise documented violations. The Department of Labor did its first-ever sweep of salons a month after The Times sent a letter inquiring after some of its findings.
In 2016, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, following intense public outcry, instituted new ventilation standards across the state and developed a task force to address the problem, ordering 143 salons to pay a collective $2 million in back pay and fines. Industry groups fought the new rules, believing the reforms were too stringent: Nail salon owners protested outside the New York Times building for over a year after the story was published. Reform has been slow, and difficult to regulate. Salon owners, many immigrants themselves, have been either unaware of the regulations or unwilling to enforce them. And conditions, according to workers, have not improved nearly enough: A 2018 study out of UCLA corroborated this, finding that across the country, working conditions for nail salon workers have generally remained abysmal.
Sonia Morales, who spoke in front of the small know of organizers and salon workers in front of Envy, has worked in the salon industry for over twenty years. She says she has routinely worked 10-12 hours; when she called in sick to a salon where she worked, she was fired. “We came from other countries,” she told the crowd, in Spanish. “We don’t speak the language. Now we are learning that we can demand change.”
Towards the end of the event, a young manicurist came down from Envy’s second-floor studio to film the chanting group with her phone. She declined to give her name, but said there were currently no customers upstairs.