Following a New York Times investigation into the state of New York City’s nail salons, Governor Andrew Cuomo has ordered a multi-agency Enforcement Task Force to inspect nail salons across the state and implement new rules and guidelines. Salons will now be required to post signs in six languages informing employees of their rights. Manicurists will be required to wear gloves and masks, and salons will need to be properly ventilated. The rules will take effect in the coming months. In a statement, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., who proposed legislation to regulate salons back in August, said, “This is an important public health issue, one that benefits not only customers but also protects the personal safety and workers’ rights of those in the industry.”
If Ruben Diaz Jr. has his way, choosing your nail salon will soon be as easy as choosing where to eat. The Bronx borough president has been on a crusade this year to institute a citywide letter grade system for all nail salons, and on Friday his proposal finally reached the City Council.
“I hope everyone got their nails done,” quipped Rafael Espinal, the chairman of the council’s Committee on Consumer Affairs, who introduced the legislation on Diaz’s behalf.
The hearing, presented jointly by the Consumer Affairs and Health committees, was the first since Diaz floated the idea earlier this year to introduce a grading system — akin to that for the city’s restaurants — for salons.
Two Nepalese nail salon workers were among those who testified at the hearing. One, speaking in heavily accented English, told the councilmembers that she works from 9:30 a.m. to 8 p.m., and receives no paid sick leave. She said she worries about the health risks of working long hours under UV lights, and about working with the toxic chemicals that are often found in nail care products. “I’m lucky to have a separate kitchen in my nail salon where I can eat,” she said. “Most workers are not so lucky.”
Another woman, speaking through a translator, said that she’s worked in a New York City nail salon for seventeen years. “I like this job,” she testified. “I get to talk to customers all day. But I’m worried about my health.” She added that her family back in Nepal was suffering, and that she wanted to be able to help them as well as support herself.
New York’s cosmetology industry is currently regulated by the state. In a 2014 report, Public Advocate Letitia James found that there were just 27 inspectors tasked with overseeing all of New York State’s 5,000 salons — 2,000 of which are in New York City. She noted at the hearing that Albany has increased the number of inspectors to 32, but said, “It’s still not enough.”
In addition to creating a system of letter grades throughout New York City’s salons, the proposed legislation would call on the state to increase the number of inspectors and require periodic training for salon technicians. It would also introduce a customer’s bill of rights, so salon patrons would understand what they should expect from their services.
The city’s Independent Budget Office estimates that at the high end, twice-yearly inspections of every salon in the five boroughs would cost $7.2 million annually. “We cannot and should not put a price tag on the well-being of our citizens,” Diaz said.
Everyone who testified on Friday agreed that there should be tighter regulation of the industry’s safety standards. But Assemblyman Ron Kim, who represents District 40, in Queens, and whose parents immigrated from Korea and ran nail salons in New York City, objected to the letter grade proposal on the grounds that it would put economic pressure on mom-and-pop businesses. Representatives of the Korean-American Nail Salon Association of New York opposed a letter grade system for the same reason.
The Department of Health and Mental Hygiene began requiring restaurants to post letter grades in 2010. The program has successfully encouraged restaurants to step up their game when it comes to health and safety: In the first year of implementation, 40 percent of restaurants that failed to receive an “A” on first inspection improved by the time of their second. In 2014, the city spent $18 million on restaurant inspections.
The salon industry contains the largest population of licensed workers in the U.S., but as Espinal pointed out, the industry has grown faster than states can regulate its safety. According to a 2013 report, the number of nail salons across the United States has tripled in the past twenty years — there are now over four for every Starbucks in the country. Getting your nails done is no longer a luxury — for many men and women, it’s a regular part of their upkeep.
Luna Ranjit, co-founder and executive director of the New York–based nonprofit Adhikaar, a Nepalese organization working to promote social justice, urged the council to consider not only consumer safety, but also that of the workers. Partnering with the Center for Urban Pedagogy, Adhikaar has created a poster for salon owners to display in their places of business. With text in English, Chinese, Nepali, Spanish, and Korean, the poster includes health and safety information for both workers and patrons.
“Now more than ever our community needs stable jobs and working conditions,” Ranjit testified, adding that she’s heard workers complain of burning eyes, back pain, rashes, and nosebleeds. We may all have heard horror stories from friends and family who have visited unsanitary salons, she said. “What is not heard are the horror stories of the workers.”