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Nail Salon Exposé: How to Make Sure You're Getting an Ethical Mani (While New York Works to Regulate the Salons)

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If you’re ready to whip out your bright-hued polish to take to your local salon for your summertime pedi, you might want to hold off for the moment. Last week, The New York Times published a two-part exposé on the health issues manicurists face (miscarriages, skin and respiratory ailments, to name a few) when exposed to harsh chemicals during manicure and pedicure treatments on a daily basis — all in the name of customers’ beauty concerns. The series also highlighted the fact that, in addition to the health risks, nail salon employees are often paid severely below the minimum wage — and sometimes forced to pay a “training fee” before being paid for services — meaning employees take home as little as $30 to $40 a day for 10- to 12-hour workdays.

Manicure treatment at nail spa
Getty

In response to the article, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has ordered “emergency measures” to tackle the wage theft and health hazards faced by thousands of employees in the nail salon industry in New York, according to the
NYT
. Cuomo has formed an Enforcement Task Force, which will conduct salon-by-salon investigations, post signage in six different languages informing employees of their rights and create new rules and regulations salons must follow to protect their employees’ health.

“New York State has a long history of confronting wage theft and unfair labor practices head on, and today, with the formation of this new Enforcement Task Force, we are aggressively following in that tradition,” Cuomo said in a statement. “We will not stand idly by as workers are deprived of their hard-earned wages and robbed of their most basic rights.”

While salons across the city were called into question for their unfair practices, many salons (including high-end studios that charge upwards of $65 for a gel manicure, such as Paintbox and Valley), spoke out about the article.

“The saying ‘You get what you pay for’ rings all too true here,” says Eleanor Langston, founder of N.Y.C.-based Paintbox Nail Studio. “In all likelihood, a very cheap manicure or pedicure means someone in the chain is missing out on pay they’re legally entitled to. If the math doesn’t seem to make sense, that’s because it probably doesn’t — a good salon charges more because it costs more to pay people well and to keep the workplace clean and safe for both clients and employees.”

To add to that, Paintbox sent PEOPLE a link to its recent blog post, which was written in reaction to the NYT article. It highlights its ethical business practices, including paying employees above the minimum wage. “We not only pay the highest hourly wages and salaries in the city from day one (we believe in investing in our employees by paying them to train for several weeks before taking their first clients), we offer paid vacation to full-time employees, as well as health insurance, which we cover in full,” Paintbox writes in the post.

And aside from the price of the service, customers should also be aware of the level of cleanliness of the salon, as well as the tools used by the technician, says Nadine Abramcyk, co-founder of N.Y.C.-based Tenoverten studio, which has multiple locations in the city.

“It’s important for clients to ask questions. Ask your technician how often the tools are cleaned,” Abramcyk says. “At Tenoverten, we implement a one-time use policy. If any tools are used on clients, they are immediately thrown out afterward.”

Abramcyk says it’s also important for clients to be aware of the ingredients in the products being used on them. “Ask, ‘Are your polishes three-free?’ It’s industry standard for polishes to be three-free (made without three big toxic chemicals: dibutyl phthalate, formaldehyde and toluene) but at Tenoverten, we house our own polishes, which are five-free (made without dibutyl phthalate, formaldehyde, toluene, formaldehyde resin and camphor).”

PEOPLE reached out to a number of local salons, which charge lower fees than Paintbox and Tenoverten, for their reaction to the article and the recent executive order, but all declined to comment.

And while these injustices were only highlighted in New York City, consumers need to be reminded that employees outside the nail salon industry are often similarly mistreated. “I think that we need to remember that many of the types of labor exploitation highlighted in the original NYT article — such as the skimming of wages, paying below minimum wage or withholding wages for supplies or room and board — happen in multiple industries in the United States,” Rebecca Pfeffer, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Criminal Justice at the University of Houston, tells PEOPLE. “This type of worker exploitation happens in agriculture, construction, restaurants and the hospitality industry, just to name a few. Many forms of worker exploitation take place legally under current visa programs and labor laws.”

“It is my hope that this is only the beginning of a chain of impactful policy changes that will better identify labor exploitation and protect workers’ rights,” says Pfeffer. “I encourage you to learn more about the California Healthy Nail Collaborative, which is setting an excellent example for how businesses can help consumers make wiser choices — and no matter what, if you believe someone is unable to leave their job because of force, fraud or coercion, you should call the National Human Trafficking Hotline (1-888-373-7888) right away.”

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What do you think of the New York Times article about the treatment of nail salon employees? Do you think the “emergency measures” will help solve the problem? Share below!

–Sarah Kinonen

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