Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The High Cost of Cheap Manicures

Sometimes I wonder if people in New York City are all that smart.

Last week the city's lead paper, the NY Times, broke a story revealing that manicure shops in the metropolis were exploiting poor workers to provide manicures and pedicures at remarkably low cost. 

The story arose when a reporter asked some questions of the woman who was doing her nails.  The woman's answers surprised her.

There followed weeks of investigations and interviews with more than 100 manicurists.  What was revealed:

     -- Most if not all were in the country illegally and spoke little English.  They had few
         work alternatives, and they lived in cramped, miserable conditions.

     -- Some paid as much as $200 to be "trained" to do their jobs and only began to be
         paid much later; some were paid as little as $30 a day, some $3 an hour.

     -- At least one woman reported she worked 24 hours a day, six days a week and 
        slept for 24 hours on Sunday, her only day off.

New Yorkers were shocked -- shocked! -- to learn that $10 manicures and $20 pedicures were not sufficient to provide nail practitioners with living wages.

Consider the facts.  Minimum wage in the city is $9 an hour.  Employer payroll taxes add another dollar or so.  Employees who work more than 30 hours a week must be provided with health insurance benefits.

Operating expenses -- rent, utilities, equipment, laundry, phones and so on -- are high in New York and add to the cost of doing business.

Can a legal employee who does two or, at most, three $10 manicures per hour generate a profit for an employer with costs like those?  Of course not.

The only way such businesses can make money is by exploiting poor Asian and Hispanic women.  The business operators are crooks.

Yet, for many years, nail salons have proliferated across the city, and customers have ignored obvious facts that were right in front of their noses. 

Maybe they tipped the manicurists well -- a 30 percent gratuity for a $10 manicure is $3, not a life-changing amount -- but did they really believe those women were earning legal wages? Did they ever even consider the question?  

Let's call those well-manicured city women what they are:  sweat-shop enablers.


I have observed something similar in California.  There are several busy nail shops on a popular walking street near our West Coast base of operations. 

Last summer I needed a pedicure and went into one of these places.  The cost was $20, which seemed low for a spot with 10 or more expensive massage chairs and an arched ceiling painted with decorative fresco-like images. 

As I watched for a while, I realized that most if not all of the business was running off the books.  Customers would pay in cash or with charge cards, but nothing ever seemed to be entered into what we used to call a cash register.  No system was keeping track of revenues; it was hard to believe it was a legitimate business, at least for tax purposes. 

Maybe the savings on unpaid taxes allowed the nail salon owner to pay its workers more, but I doubt it.  Or maybe the workers paid the owner to "rent" the chairs in exchange for a cut of the revenues, as is sometimes the case with beauty salons.  But when I have visited such beauty salons, payments are entered into an electronic system.  Not at the nail place. 

This was an educational experience for me.  I have not gone back to the nail salon.


Like other New Yorkers, the governor was gobsmacked to learn that nail salons were mistreating their employees.  Now, having read the newspaper articles, he wants legislation to ease manicurist licensing requirements that were ignored for years, to assure that even undocumented workers are paid minimum wage and to address worker safety issues relating to substances used in nail salons.  

I find it striking that two of our bluest states, New York and California, seem uninterested in the welfare of large populations of immigrant workers -- house cleaners, nannies, landscapers and construction workers, among others.  

These workers are paid sub-market rates and given no benefits because it costs less for the people who hire them and -- until there is a newspaper expose -- the government looks the other way.  

We talk a lot about inequality these days, but a lot of us don't bother to walk the walk in our personal lives.  

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