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When Nail Salon Workers Organize, Customers Also Benefit

When Loann first immigrated to the U.S. six years ago, she never thought she would become a leader in her industry.

Most workers in nail salons fall into what some call the "informal economy." Learn more about it entails in "City Rising: The Informal Economy" (Trailer)

Back in Vietnam, she worked as an accountant. In the U.S., she went to cosmetology school and started work at a nail salon. With limited English skills, she felt this would be the best job for her.

Across the country, there are between 126,000 and 212,000 people working in nail salons, but advocates say the numbers are underreported. The industry is expected to grow: a 2018 study from the UCLA Labor Center entitled “Nail Files: A Study of Nail Salon Workers and Industry in the United States,” found that the nail industry is expected to grow at twice the rate of any other in the next decade.

The California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative, which partnered with UCLA to create the study, has been working to combat some of the risks that nail salon workers face. California has the largest nail salon industry, estimated at 7,800 nail salons and more than 100,000 nail technicians.

According to the report, 78% of workers in nail salons are low-wage workers, and the majority are immigrants. They face challenging working conditions, including wage violations and exposure to harsh chemicals.

Salon worker working on a customer's manicure
A customer at Vicky's Nail Salon receives a manicure in Alameda, Calif., Wednesday, Aug. 28, 2019. | Alison Yin for KCET

Founded out of Asian Health Services, a community health clinic in Oakland’s Chinatown, the organization began its work in 2005. “Our Vietnamese community health outreach workers were doing outreach in nail salons to educate the community about cancer screenings, and one of the things we kept hearing is that they have other health issues like rashes,” said Lisa Fu, director of the California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative.

It started organically from the community asking the health clinic to research more about the products and chemicals in nail products. Now active statewide, the California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative focuses on outreach, leadership training and policy advocacy, as well as community-based research.

Through this research, the collaborative found that nail salon products contain a multitude of chemicals that cause cancer or reproductive harm, including three that have been dubbed the “toxic trio:” formaldehyde, toluene, and phthalates. As an incentive for nail salons to go “greener” — including swapping out nail polishes with the harmful chemicals to ones without those ingredients — the California Healthy Nail Salon Recognition Program in 2009 was formed.

The voluntary program aimed at helping salons adopt safer practices was first passed in San Francisco, championed by then Supervisor David Chiu, now a California assembly member (D-San Francisco). 

It doesn’t just stop at healthier practices. Salons in the program must pay their workers minimum wage and allow workers to keep all of their tips. “A proper healthy nail salon also goes along with labor law,” said Phuong An Doan-Billings, the Collaborative’s program and outreach coordinator. 

Phuong-An Doan-Billings
Phuong An Doan-Billings works as a program coordinator for California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative which is part of Asian Health Services in Oakland, Calif., Wednesday, Aug. 28, 2019. 

According to the “Nail Files” report, wage theft is common. In California, a survey states that 61% of nail salon workers are paid less than minimum wage, while 89% are not paid overtime. 

The strength of the organization lies in its mission of building power within the nail salon workforce. “They are the experts in terms of what a workday looks like, in terms of what products they’re using, in terms of trends in the nail industry and their pay and how it’s impacting their daily lives,” Fu said.

When Doan-Billings first began working to bring salons into the recognition program, she cold-called salons in the East Bay. One of the salons was Vicky’s Nails in Alameda, where owner Xuan Huynh was immediately interested.

“I am so thankful for this program,” he said. “The [collaborative] came here and trained us. Before, it’s easier for me to get allergies and sometimes headaches.” The trainings not only include what types of products to use and better ventilation systems, which are decisions largely determined by the owner, but also practices that workers can adopt, such as disposing of cotton swabs and other things in a manner that helps reduce the volume of chemicals being released into the air.

Currently, five cities and counties recognize salons under this program: The City of Santa Monica, Alameda County, the City and County of San Francisco, San Mateo County and Santa Clara County, with over 250 salons in the program. They receive a window decal, help from the city or county to publicize the salons and are officially recognized by local governments.

“By and large, consumers want a program like this,” Fu said.

Xuan Huynh, owner of Vicky's Nail Salon, poses for a portrait outside the salon in Alameda, Calif., Wednesday, Aug. 28, 2019. He has owned the salon since 1995. | Alison Yin for KCET
Xuan Huynh, owner of Vicky's Nail Salon, poses for a portrait outside the salon in Alameda, Calif., Wednesday, Aug. 28, 2019. He has owned the salon since 1995. | Alison Yin for KCET

At Vicky’s, the nail technicians typically work 6 hours a day, make the city’s $13.50 minimum wage, and keep their tips.

However, with the Bay Area’s cost of housing and living expenses increasing rapidly, it’s still hard to scrape by. Loann is both a worker and manager. Along with the higher cost of living the Bay Area, she’s also witnessed her regular customers moving out of California. “It’s very hard for nail salon workers to get by. If you try and work very hard, you may be able to stay here and get by. But the issue is if I make more, I have to pay more for health insurance.” Currently, she says her out-of-pocket pay for Obamacare is $1,200 a month. “People like us are stuck. We are not rich enough, but we work very hard to get what we make so that we can get by and live life in California.”

Since many workers are immigrants or refugees, the prospect of becoming a public charge — which refers to a law where individuals who are deemed to be dependent on the government for subsistence can be denied a green card or lawful permanent residence — is frightening. In this way, immigration policy directly dovetails with the health and wellbeing of this workforce.

Public charge rule change was published on August 14, 2019 and will take effect on October 15, 2019. Even before it has taken effect, nail salon workers are already worried, even though a number of them are exempt because of their refugee status or they already have their green card. “We’ve had patients who are nail salon workers give up food stamps or other public benefits unnecessarily because they are afraid. This is part of the inhumane harm of this policy,” said Thu Quach, chief deputy of administration at Asian Health Services.

Overall, the collaborative’s leaders hope the public sees them as people, not just as anonymous nail salon workers. “It’s not just jobs — it’s a huge economy that’s helped boom the industry, and these people often pay taxes and contribute to society. It is critical that we unite and fight back together,” Quach added.

As part of the organization’s mission, it is also advocating for better laws. The team has worked to help pass several bills in recent years to protect workers and customers.

They lobbied for AB-647, a law signed by the governor in late September, to make it easier for salon workers and owners to find out the ingredients of products they are using. The law requires that manufacturers of hazardous substances used as cosmetics or disinfectants provide material safety and data sheets on their websites and translate them into Vietnamese, Korean and Spanish so they are easily accessible to the public.

Another bill they lobbied for and that passed years ago, AB-2125, created a program within the Department of Toxic Substances Control to encourage counties statewide to establish their own programs with the goal of increasing the number of salons adopting safer and better working conditions. After some administrative delays, it’s finally rolling out this fall.

“When I first started working, I just thought of working for a living,” Loann, who is a part of the collaborative’s leadership training program, said in Vietnamese. “Now that I work in a healthy nail salon, I work not only to put food on the table, but I work for myself, my customers, my community and the environment.” She has spoken in Sacramento in front of lawmakers. “I could have never imagined that I could do that, that I can stand up for my career, my job, and advocate for all the workers.”

Loan Nguyen
Loann, a manager at Vicky's Nail Salon, poses for a portrait outside the salon in Alameda, Calif., Wednesday, Aug. 28, 2019. | Alison Yin for KCET

While it’s still challenging to make a living, several workers noted that the job provides income and a flexible work schedule. One worker has worked at Vicky’s for 10 years and has been a manicurist for 25 years. She started when her children were young. “I needed a job with flexible time to help me take care of my family,” the worker said through an interpreter. “Overall, it’s been a beautiful career. The career worked for me because my English is not strong.”

Even for those fluent in English, the flexibility of the job is an appealing aspect. One nail salon worker based in Southern California, who wished to remain anonymous, said she was born in the U.S. She has a degree in psychology, but it was difficult to find a job. So, she went to cosmetology school and has worked in nail salons in the past 7 years. “It’s pretty much how I help feed and raise family,” the woman, who works in a salon in Paramount, said. She’s also a member of the collaborative’s leadership team and helped lobby for several bills in Sacramento. She said she makes a $100 flat rate working 8 hours a day plus tips.

Overall, workers and Huynh, owner of Vicky’s Nails, say being in the program has been incredibly empowering.

In Vietnam, Huynh worked in the South Vietnam army until 1975. In 1986, he escaped from Vietnam on a small boat with 109 people. He spent time in refugee camps in Singapore and the Philippines before arriving the U.S. Within months, he had to find a job – for him, that meant attending cosmetology school in Alameda to become a nail technician. “When I came here, I had to work very hard to take care of my daughter. I didn’t have time to go to school. I learned English by myself,” Huynh said.

Now, he marvels at how he has become a leader through the CA Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative. 

“How can a person like me, an immigrant, talk in front of senators and state representatives, to talk about chemical exposure so the state knows the issues of nail salon workers? But we did that thanks to the collaborative.”

Huynh says being in the program has paid off, and that he is getting more customers because of the recognition. In the past two years, his salon was voted in Alameda Magazine as the best place to get a manicure and pedicure in Alameda.

Lenore Walker, a longtime customer said, “It’s really nice because you don’t come in and are bombarded by the chemical smell.” She said the fact that the salon is a healthier salon is part of the reason why she keeps coming back. “The people are really friendly here,” she added. “It’s relaxing, it’s one less thing I have to do myself, and it makes me feel good.”

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