Glenda Sefla got a job in a nail salon in New York City when she first arrived from her home country of Ecuador because it was the first option she could find to make some money. But from the very beginning she knew something was wrong. “The conditions were really bad,” she told me, speaking in Spanish through an interpreter. One of those conditions was wage theft. She was working 10-hour days but making just $30 a day. That amounted to a mere $3 an hour, even though her wages and tips were supposed to come to at least $8 an hour.
That small amount of money didn’t cover her bills and expenses. “So then I just ended up working more,” she explained. She would work six or even seven days a week just to try to make ends meet. “I would just go to sleep and then go to work and then go to sleep and go to work,” she said. She spent three years putting in those kinds of hours. “I felt totally exhausted, physically and mentally.”
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She eventually started working in a different salon in Manhattan where she made slightly more: $50-60 a day for the same hours. It still wasn’t enough to cover her bills. She had to eat “the most basic things,” always at home because she couldn’t afford to eat a meal out. She couldn’t buy herself anything, not even new clothes. “I couldn’t take care of my physical and mental health,” she said.
“You’re working so hard, but at the end of the week you still don’t have enough,” she added. “It makes it impossible to imagine a dignified life.”
Meanwhile, the salon owners never gave her and her coworkers information about how to protect their health and safety when working with chemicals everyday. Salon workers are routinely exposed to the “toxic trio” of formaldehyde, toluene, and dibutyl phthalate, common nail polish ingredients, as well as disinfectants such as alcohol. Exposure can lead to skin irritation and chronic conditions, allergies, and even reproductive problems.
Sefla didn’t realize that she had the right to more pay and better protection until she found the New York Nail Salon Workers Association, which organizes nail salon workers in the state around wages and working conditions. She’s now an organizer there.
“This wasn’t just something that was just happening to me,” she noted. For all of her compañeras in the industry, “This is the reality that we’re living.”
A new report backs her up. In a survey of about 100 nail salon workers in New York City and surrounding counties, the New York Nail Salon Workers Association found that 82 percent experienced wage theft. Employers are failing to pay the state’s tipped minimum wage, aren’t making up the difference when employees’ base wages and tips don’t add up to the full minimum wage, and don’t pay extra for overtime work. The hours are long: nearly two-thirds of nail salon employees say they work shifts that are at least 10 hours. But many aren’t paid time and a half for the extra hours they put in.
That wage theft is costing them, on average, more than $180 a week, or over $9,000 a year—steep sums for the majority immigrant female workers who survive off of little pay to begin with. More than 10 percent of respondents were losing more than $400 a week.
One source of the problem, the report finds, can be traced back to how little it costs to get a manicure in New York. Workers at salons that charge the lowest prices—$9 or less for a manicure—reported experiencing higher rates of wage theft and losing more money, while those at salons that charged at least $16 for a manicure kept more of the money they were due. “Low prices translate into illegal poverty wages,” the report states. But “as service prices increase, wage theft decreases.”
On top of the inadequate pay, the report also found that 86 percent of nail salon workers in New York City aren’t being given paid sick days, as is the law.
In 2015, a New York Times expose shone a light on the rampant mistreatment of nail salon employees in the city, who are often forced to work extremely long hours in harsh conditions for little pay. In its wake, the state implemented health and safety standards dealing with ventilation and protective equipment. It also now requires owners to take financial steps to ensure that workers can recover wages if it’s found they’re being underpaid and created a voluntary recognition process for those deploying best practices. But workers argue that even with some protections in place, they need stronger enforcement to get what they’re due. “While the legislation provided new protections for workers and regulations for employers, workers continue to organize to make those protections a reality,” the report notes.
“We still aren’t really seeing changes,” Sefla said. “We have established better laws, but we’re seeing that a lot of the owners are not complying with the new laws. So we haven’t seen the change that we’re looking for.”
In December, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced he would get phase out the tipped minimum wage for a group of workers that includes nail salon employees (although excluded restaurant and hospitality workers), meaning salon owners will be required to pay the full minimum wage regardless of how much customers tip. But as the report notes, many workers weren’t even being paid the lower tipped wage to begin with. So they’re demanding more legislative action.
“We need mechanisms for enforcing those established laws,” Sefla said. “There won’t be any change without consequences and accountability.”
The heart of their demand is that the state legislature pass the Nail Salon Accountability Act, which will be introduced later this month. The law would change the licensing process so that workers’ feedback would be incorporated into the renewal process and owners would have to get certification proving that they are complying with labor, health, and safety laws. It would also mandate training for owners and workers on those laws. “Compliance with the law must become part of the cost of doing business,” the report states.
There are other potential legislative fixes in the works as well. Members of the assembly are considering a bill that would criminalize wage theft. The New York City council is working on a bill that would give salon owners subsidies so they could add proper ventilation.
“Esos son básicos,” Sefla said: These are basic things. “Son derechos que tenemos aquí en este país.” These are rights we have here in this country.