“I only read the first paragraph. What was it about?,” says a blonde 32-year-old woman clutching a large iced drink—against which her newly painted red-orange nails give off an unusually perfect sheen. She describes herself as a business owner as I catch her stepping out of an Upper West Side nail salon, Nails & More.
She seems somewhere between bored and irritated that I’ve asked her about the New York Times series exposing the exploitation of the city’s nail salon workers.
Yes, that one: the one that has been posted on numerous Facebook walls; the one that has spurred the governor of New York to issue emergency measures to protect salon workers.
And yet, on the streets of Manhattan, many nail salon clientele seem all but unaware of the report that is infamous in media and political circles of New York.
“I only read the first paragraph like I said,” the woman tells me abruptly when I ask her if the issues raised by the article—the wage exploitation and health dangers that plague nail workers—will have an impact on her salon choice.
The Gray Lady gave prime journalistic real estate to Sarah Maslin Nir’s two-part expose on the exploitation of manicurists.
Her article showcased how scores of immigrant women, often undocumented ones, toiled in horrible conditions while they were exposed to dangerous chemicals.
“I am worth less than a shoe,” a manicurist named Qing Lin said of being fired after accidentally getting nail polish remover on an Upper East Side client’s Prada sandal and being forced to hand over $270 for a new pair.
The anecdotes are chilling, and the article went viral. A slew of websites, included this one, picked up the story. Many reporters responded to it with suggestions for how to support salons that treat women better. Even a boycott has been discussed in some morally superior Brooklyn circles.
However, a potential solution, or at least an improvement, arrived when New York State Gov. Andrew Cuomo took notice and issued emergency measures to protect manicurists from wage theft and unsafe working conditions.
A typically-elusive concrete change in public policy has actually been achieved because of this barnstorming article.
And yet, outside of the rarefied bubble of media and politics, do women actually care enough about the exposé to change their cuticle-buffing habits? Even if it has been shared en massed via social media, did they read it in its entirety?
In an admittedly unscientific survey of a dozen patrons of New York City salons scattered throughout the Upper West Side, Upper East Side, and West Village/Chelsea, this reporter found that women on the streets of Manhattan just didn’t seem to be particularly affected by the article.
I interviewed women ranging from their twenties through their fifties. They held a variety of occupations: students, actresses, mothers, business owners. They were a variety of races: white, black, Asian, and Latina.
The majority said they hadn’t read the full article, and they weren’t changing jack about their manicure habits.
There seems to be a disconnect between the quite rightful outrage the article has generated, and people actually changing their consumer behavior. Or Manhattan women are practicing denial on an epic scale.
“I heard about it. Someone on the street asked me, ‘Oh, did you see the New York Times article? It has May’s in it,” said Cathy, an actress who identified as “over 30.” She dove into my interview with a woman, May, who identified herself as the owner of May’s Nail Salon, which was cited prominently in Nir’s piece.
Cathy could not have been quicker to defend May. “I was like, ‘So, what?’ I know May, and May’s a straightforward, upstanding women. I don’t believe it was written about her. I think it was a generalization.”
Cathy also added: “I don’t know that. I didn’t read it.”
In her article, Nir says she spoke to a man named Greg who identified himself as the owner of May’s Nail Salon.
He denied a worker’s claim that “new employees must pay $100, then work unpaid for several weeks, before they are started at $30 or $40 a day.” May also denied to the Daily Beast what was written about her salon in the article.
Cathy says she has been going to May’s on a friend’s recommendation for the past four or five years. She was outraged that the Times would criticize it. “Now, I have to read it because I’m upset,” she said as she turned to May. “That’s not nice to use you as an example of wrongdoing.”
Things did not fare much better uptown.
I spoke to a 26-year-old woman who had just gotten her nails done at NYC Nail Spa on the Upper West Side, which was also named in the article. I asked if she had read the Times piece on the exploitation of salon workers. She seemed perplexed.
“Recently?,” she asked. Yes, it came out last week I told her. “I have not,” she then said. She is currently getting a double masters in health administration and health advocacy.
I cite her credentials not to mock her, but to highlight her intelligence. She was articulate and well-educated and cared about public health, and yet she still drew a blank on the article. She said she had no idea that the salon she had just gone to was accused of exploiting workers and placing them in dangerous conditions.
“The conditions [there] are great. That’s the reason I go,” she said.
I asked her if she’s noticed anything indicating the abuse of workers. She cited the fact that she’s “had great conversations” with many of them as her proof that they are not exploited.
“I’ve gone to a bunch of other nail salons within the city. You can tell in the tone and body language the hierarchical ranking and who makes the decision. I don’t like to be cheated, and I can tell if that’s happening. If they’re being cheated, it comes off in their behavior with a client,” she said.
“I consider myself to be observant, and I notice changes like that,” she added.
I went east and stopped at Bloom Nails & Spa on Lexington Avenue between 87th and 88th Street. It was not one of the salons named in the article, and I was curious if its clientele had chosen Bloom for its absence.
Wendy, a 56-year-old woman, appeared to have no idea about the workers’ exploitation, though had vaguely heard of the chemical dangers discussed in Nir’s second part of the series. Wendy discussed these dangers only in terms of her own health.
“A woman stopped me and said ‘Why aren’t you wearing a mask?’ She said it was all over the news, the Times,” she said as she admonished herself for not bringing her own nail tool supplies. “If you think about it, even though they sanitize them, you don’t know if that box is real.”
Wendy felt her salon treated its workers well because it was “immaculate.”
The equating of sanitariness with ethical employee treatment does not seem entirely logical, but neither did the previous assessment that “good conversations” equaled fair wages.
I then visited one of the Iris Nails in New York’s Upper East Side neighborhood. It was cited in the Times piece.
It lies on Madison Avenue, safely ensconced among boutique clothing shops. An older Indian woman was whisked into a chauffeured car before I could even ask her if she would speak to me. The next two women flat-out declined to talk, which did not happen at any of the other six nail salons I visited.
One Iris client who did speak to me was a 21-year-old student. She told me she had read the Times article, but she also said she did not realize Iris was one of the salons named in it.
“I’m pretty surprised. I always thought they treated people well there. That’s why I go there,” she said.
When I asked her why she thought that Iris was better to its workers, her train of thought went… elsewhere. “It’s just convenience because I live nearby.”
When I asked if knowing Iris was mentioned in the article as an exploiter of workers affected her decision to return, she said, “I’m probably going to go back.” However, she added, “But I’m definitely going to tip them more.”
I don’t want to paint a generalized picture that women are wholly unmoved by workers’ exploitation. I received the “tip more” response multiple times from women I interviewed.
However, Nir pointed out in the article that “Tips or wages are often skimmed or never delivered.” Even if women deliver on bigger tips, it may be a well-intentioned but futile response.
In all fairness, there appears to be no easy solution to rectifying the nail salon problem. Boycotting nail salons may ultimately hurt workers, as well. If these places completely shut down, it’s not like a lot of job options are open to women who often cannot speak English well and may be undocumented.
So, if and when these places will the workers suddenly find work at better salons? That may not be an option. It unrealistic to think women would stop en masse getting manicures and pedicures for an extended period, and it’s not a solution to the systemic problem of work exploitation. A relative handful of salons were singled out in the Times piece, but their neighbors are likely just as at fault.
“I think people are pretty outraged but not necessarily enthusiastic about the impending price increases, or [that they] would stop going to a place if they knew that the owner was doing wrong by the workers,” said a 32-year-old friend of mine who gets her nails done every two weeks. She’s also an attorney, specializing in labor law.
“From what I can tell, it’s rampant, and if people only went to places where they currently pay people properly they’d have almost nowhere to go.”