The Dangerous, Low-Paid World of Nail Salons

Whether nail salon employees get good pay, time off and fair treatment at work currently varies widely depending on the salon they work for.

Sarah, a Vietnamese Californian (who asked to be identified only by her first name to avoid negative consequences at work), got into the nail salon industry six years ago so she could help ease her family’s financial problems. She was having trouble finding a job with her psychology degree, all while trying to support two children alongside her husband. So, she took a job as a manicurist as a “fast way of finding money,” she said.

In her current salon in West Hollywood, she makes a bit over minimum wage plus tips. “It gives me a chance to put food on my table and pay the bills,” she said. But it can get tough for her family to get by. “Sometimes we have to take out … a little loan here and there,” she said. “But pretty much, we’re surviving.”

Her current job also gives her some leniency in taking breaks and sick days when she needs them. Others haven’t been so generous. Past salons she worked in didn’t always pay her minimum wage or offer her sick days. Once, Sarah says, her daughter had an emergency doctor’s appointment and her boss said to her, “I know you have things to take care of, but we really need you today.”

So, she faced a dilemma. “I had a choice: either it’s my daughter or it’s my job,” Sarah said. She was luckily able to call her husband and have him take her. “Thank god my husband had time to take care of the girls.”

Even her current job comes with problems nail salon workers commonly face. In the hot summer season, when demand spikes, she may work intense and long hours. As the weather cools, those hours drop off, and now she’s working an average of about 30 a week. She just became an Uber driver to supplement her income.

The US government counted 126,300 nail salon workers across the country as of 2017, but that is almost certainly an undercount. In California and New York…

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