Business

What is the impact of New York's new nail salon rules?

Nina Werman
Image caption "I've been a disgruntled employee in my life and I don't want anyone to have that experience," says Nina Werman

Valley, a high-end nail salon on a leafy street in Manhattan, is spacious and sleek, its whitewashed walls adorned with contemporary art.

The salon has a loyal customer base of well-heeled New Yorkers willing to pay the higher-than-usual minimum fee of $30 (£19) for a manicure.

Since she started the business in 2006, owner Nina Werman's approach to dealing with her employees has also set the salon apart.

She pays her nail technicians more than the minimum wage, provides paid lunch breaks, training, overtime and sick pay as well as protective masks and gloves.

"I want to retain my staff," says Ms Werman of her approach. "It takes a lot of money and time and emotional energy to hire and train a technician. I've been a disgruntled employee in my life and I don't want anyone to have that experience."

It's a far cry from the world exposed earlier this year in the New York Times, which detailed the low wages and difficult working conditions endured by many nail technicians in New York state's 34,000 beauty salons.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption After the New York Times article, volunteers gave out leaflets detailing concerns about nail salon workers to commuters

To reassure its customers after the expose, Valley put a "Handle with Care" sticker on its front door. Based on a hashtag created for social media by design agency Table of Contents, it aims to encourage customers to tout salons with ethical labour practices.

But take up of the voluntary scheme has been low - so far just 10 stores have adopted it - and it has been rapidly overtaken by official measures to regulate the sector introduced by the state government of New York.

Counter productive?

Among the new rules: salon owners must pay minimum wage and overtime hours, and provide eye protection, masks and gloves for those working with chemicals. Manicurists must be licensed with the state, and a new "Bill of Rights for Nail Workers" is now prominently displayed in salons. Inspections and fines on salons have also increased, and legislation allows the state to quickly shut down shops which do not comply.

More regulations are on the cards, dealing particularly with the use of chemicals at nail salons. The proposed rules will require salons to have specialised air-ventilation machines to protect workers and customers from vapours released by acrylics, for example.

Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption Nail salons which don't comply with the new rules can now be quickly shut down

However, many business owners are warning the changes could be counter productive.

Sue Choi, a young Korean business woman, has owned a small, colourful salon called Sweety Nails, based in the predominantly Asian neighbourhood of Flushing where manicures start at $7, for four years.

Ms Choi says she pays her six employees, whom she works alongside, a fair wage, and has tried to create an atmosphere where both workers and customers are happy. "Like a family," she says.

But now the new regulations and frequent inspections of her salon - "targeted enforcement", she says - have made her anxious and discouraged. "I'm having doubts about being in business at all," she admits.

'Nerve-wracking'

One regulation in particular has endangered small businesses like Ms Choi's: a requirement for small salons to obtain a wage bond, a form of insurance to cover potential claims for unpaid wages.

Image copyright Golda Arthur
Image caption Sylvia Padilla says the pay and conditions at Valley are better than the other places she has worked

The bonds range from $250 to $1,000 a year, and are based on the salon owner's personal finances. Advocates for salon workers say they are important for worker's rights, and are part of the cost of doing business.

However, because Ms Choi is a relatively new immigrant she has no credit history making it difficult for her to get approval for a bond, without which she can't renew her licence to operate.

Other salon owners say it's difficult to stay on top of the changes.

Candice Idehen, who opened Bed of Nails - a small, plush salon employing six people - in Harlem two years ago, says it's "nerve-wracking".

"The rules in this industry are changing fast and whether you know what they are or not, you have to follow them."

Ms Idehen herself has worked as a nail technician at salons where the owners didn't care about their workers, and says that this has shaped how she runs her business.

Image copyright Valley
Image caption Sylvia Padilla's work at Valley is painstakingly detailed
Image copyright Valley
Image caption Prices at Valley start at $30 for a manicure

As a result, Bed of Nails has a reputation for being an ethical salon, based on, for example, pedicure chairs placed higher up than usual so that technicians don't have to hunch over whilst working on a customer's feet.

Yet the rules, even when they're not relevant, still apply to her salon, Ms Idehen complains. For instance, the salon doesn't use acrylics, yet workers must wear masks. Of the proposed rules on air ventilation systems, she says, "These things make me a little nervous because those are huge costs, with many things to take into consideration."

She thinks some salons might start to pass these new costs onto customers, but is determined that she won't. Her clients, who pay $20 for a basic manicure, come for the service, she says, and she says her business will absorb these costs when they arise.

Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption The new rules are still being added to

Nonetheless, she expects the industry itself to change permanently.

"I do think it will turn a manicure into more of a luxury service, like what you see in other cities like London.

"And for people just starting out with a new business in this industry, it's going to be hard."

But for Ecuadorian nail technician Sylvia Padilla, one of Valley's 25 employees, the changes are welcome. Whilst she's never worked at a salon where exploitation and abuse was the norm, she says working conditions and pay have been poor.

At Valley she's happy. "We have a lunch break, and the pay is higher. We have the time to work with customers. In other places we have to rush with one customer after another and have to keep working and working."

She is hopeful the new regulations will make more salons operate like Valley.