Bolstered by consumer demand, the United States’ multibillion-dollar nail salon industry has seen growth the last couple decades. It’s time our policies support the need for additional skilled nail technicians, protect their well-being on the job, and do so without placing undue burden on immigrant-owned businesses.
In Pennsylvania — and many other states in our nation — the nail technician licensing process is broken. The result? The hiring of unlicensed nail technicians is a common problem in Philadelphia and neighboring counties, according to inspectors from the Pa. Bureau of Enforcement and Investigation.
Current training requirements to become a licensed manicurist are burdensome and do not meet the needs of the growing number of immigrant workers entering the field. To earn a license, a trainee must, among other requirements, pay several thousands of dollars to receive 200 hours of classroom instruction at a licensed cosmetology school and pass a state board exam. These requirements may seem easy at first glance, but for new immigrants whose first language is not English, 200 hours of classroom instruction in English is a huge challenge. Many new immigrant workers have an urgent need to earn money to support their families. Time in the classroom limits the time in which they can earn this critical source of income.
As my colleagues and I found interviewing Philadelphia nail salon employees and managers about their work conditions, many workers find hands-on experience in the salon the best and quickest way to learn the craft, along with practice at home and on coworkers during breaks.
If you see young nail technicians who speak more advanced English at a salon doing manicures and pedicures, they are often college students working part-time to earn some income. It makes no financial sense for them to pay the training fee and spend 200 hours in the classroom when they could use their precious time earning money.
Nail spas are ubiquitous in urban cities and are very affordable, thanks to thousands of immigrant workers, mostly women of color, who work long hours for low wages to keep prices competitive. Due to high demand, some nail salon owners are quick to hire part-time and new workers during busy days and the summer, even if some of these technicians lack the proper license. While both workers and owners might agree to this arrangement, this practice puts these workers in a vulnerable position, especially if they are undocumented. The owners could potentially use this weakness and force the technicians to work against their will.
In these environments, nail salon owners do not always adopt safe practices. My colleagues and I recently published research in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine drawing from our interviews with employees and managers/owners from different salons in Philadelphia. Workers reported many acute health symptoms from chemical exposure, along with muscle pain in back, shoulders, and hands from excessive, repetitive tasks. Other studies have shown that levels of these chemicals in nail salons are well below occupational exposure limits, but still high enough to cause multiple health problems.
Yet the consistent reporting of acute health symptoms experienced by nail salon employees in multiple studies warrants intervention, as nail salon employees may be at heightened risk due to extended hours at the salons. Successful intervention efforts will require not only motivation from the employees and owners, but also pressure from customers and policy makers as well as the involvement of local community organizations.
Pennsylvania can learn from other states that have passed laws to protect workers’ health, while fostering growth in the industry. Four years ago, after an investigation of poor wages and labor conditions in New York state’s nail industry, the state passed comprehensive nail salon policy reform that includes a training pathway for unlicensed workers. Their nail technician trainee program requires the trainee to pay a small fee to receive 26 hours of classroom instruction to get a trainee permit. Then they can work in the salon for up to one year and upgrade to the full license by taking the regular exam. The exam is offered in several languages, thereby improving its attractiveness to new immigrants who may need more time to learn a new language and way of life in a new country.
Allowing them a path to earn a livable income in a safe workplace is a good place to start.
Tran Huynh is an assistant professor of environmental and occupational health at the Dornsife School of Public Health at Drexel University.