8 Things You Should Know About the Underworld of Nail Salons

We all love a good mani and pedi. But have you ever thought about the working conditions of your favorite nail salon?

The New York Times recently did an in-depth feature on nail salons in the New York City tri-state area and the results were jarring. The majority of manicurists are barely paid a living wage, some have been subjected to abuse by their employers and others are forced to live in tiny apartments shared by strangers and sleep on bunk beds. Some live off tips, when they’re not getting them docked as punishment. Most have to pay in order to work for free and if you’re not of Korean descent, you will be on the short end of the stick when it comes to nail salon culture.

Here’s 8 things you need to know about nail salons before you get your next mani-pedi fix!

1. Majority of workers are paid below minimum wage.

150 nail salon workers and owners, all who spoke four different languages, were interviewed by The New York Times and it was found that the majority of workers are paid below minimum wage, if they’re paid at all. Some workers are subjected to having their tips docked as punishment for minor infractions such as spilling bottles of polish, are monitored by employers on video and are even physically abused. Employers rarely face punishment for their labor violations.

2. The caste system is real.

Korean manicurists earn twice as much as their peers due to Korean owners dominating the industry. Next, are Chinese workers and Hispanics and other non-Asians are at the bottom.

3. Low manicure prices = Low pay for workers.

A survey of 105 Manhattan nail salons found that the average price for a manicure was $10.50, while the countrywide average is almost double that. “You can be assured, that if you go to a place with rock-bottom prices, that chances are the worker’s wages are being stolen,” says Nicole Hallett, a lecturer at Yale Law School who has worked on wage theft cases in salons. “The costs are borne by the low-wage workers who are doing your nails.”

4. New employees have to pay to work for free.

New manicurists get their start by paying $100 to $200 as a training fee. Similar to an unpaid internship or apprenticeship, weeks and sometimes months of work follows. When manicurists finally do get paid, it’s under $3 an hour.

5. Koreans are the favorite in the nail industry.

According to the Korean American Nail Salon Association, 70-80% of salons in New York City are Korean-owned. Korean manicurists who are young and attractive have their pick of what salons to work for, particularly the ones on Madison Avenue. They earn 15 to 25% more than their contemporaries. Non-Korean manicurists are forced into the less desirable jobs in the boroughs outside of Manhattan where there are fewer tips.

6. Rare investigations into low wages.

The Labor Department is responsible for monitoring wage violations in New York City. Until last year, the agency had never conducted a sweep of nail salons. However, when they do investigate a salon, 80% of the time they find that workers have been underpaid. Also, manicurists are often unwilling to cooperate with investigations.

7. Several manicurists work without licenses.

Currently, there are 30,000 licensed nail technicians in the state of New York, but several manicurists work without licenses. Licenses are either fabricated or bought and sold.

8. Pay to learn new skills.

Many manicurists, despite the fact of paying the training fee and length of time they’ve worked at one salon, still have to pay their employers to learn new skills. Learning new skills is how they get a raise. It costs $100 each to learn eyebrow waxing, apply gel and cure it with ultraviolet light.


Brittney Fennell

Brittney Fennell

Brittney is a NYC journalist who has goals to disrupt culture in ways unseen.