ILR School

Unvarnished: Precarity and Poor Working Conditions for Nail Salon Workers in New York State

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This report maps out the contours of New York State’s nail salon industry and workforce and examines labor conditions in the industry and their impact on workers’ lives, particularly in light of the COVID-19 pandemic and recent legislation regulating the industry. The research conducted for this report included analysis of government data on the industry; focus groups with nail salon workers conducted in four languages; and a statewide survey of nail salons. The research design was shaped by the principles of participatory research. Our analysis indicates that New York has the highest concentration of nail technicians in the nation, with the most common primary languages of these workers being Chinese (39%), Spanish (19%), and Vietnamese (14%). The vast majority (82%) of nail salons in New York are microbusinesses with five or fewer nail technicians, and the average service prices are markedly lower than the nationwide average. New legislation and regulations have been an important step toward lifting standards in the industry, but our research suggests that nail salon workers in New York earn low wages and have inadequate workplace benefits. With a workforce predominantly made up of immigrant women of color who often endure economic insecurity and have limited alternative job opportunities, our research found that this precarity heightened fears of retaliation, seriously undermining workers’ willingness to speak out about violations. Our research reveals substantial employer noncompliance with new laws and regulations and also points to unequal pay, treatment, and working conditions for workers of different ethnic backgrounds. Access to training and awareness of workers’ rights appeared to make workers feel more empowered to speak out. The report recommendations include: use a sectoral approach to raise standards comprehensively across the industry; center worker voice and organizing in strategies to lift and enforce industry standards, and support worker organizations’ critical role in bolstering worker voice and agency; strengthen enforcement capacity; ensure diverse representation of the workforce in any such initiatives; and make training more accessible and relevant for nail salon workers.

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Cornell University, ILR School, The Worker Institute.


worker rights; nail salon industry; New York; immigrant workers; sectoral bargaining; wage enforcement; low wage workers


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