Philadelphia’s nail salons are struggling to keep the lights on as COVID-19 continues to keep many consumers home. But the pandemic is not entirely to blame. The system was broken before COVID-19 hit — little regulation led to nail salons flooded with chemicals, little support existed for immigrant entrepreneurs and low-wage workers. The pandemic gives us a chance to rebuild, with safe manicures for consumers, and assistance to immigrant entrepreneurs to create healthy workplaces and thriving businesses to stimulate Philadelphia’s economy. Here’s how.
The health burden experienced by immigrant nail salon workers is well-documented, including a higher risk of acute respiratory health symptoms from years of exposure to chemicals, as well as musculoskeletal pains from doing repetitive tasks. While chemical concentrations in nail salons are typically below legal limits, we don’t know the long-term effects of exposure to even supposed low levels of these chemicals for years. Lack of federal regulation of chemical manufacturers flooded consumers with nail products that contain harmful ingredients.
This lack of regulation allows chemical manufacturers to shift responsibility to salon owners to keep their workers safe and consumers to make their own choices, between using abundantly available, cheap, and harmful products and safer, more expensive alternatives. Many small-business owners, particularly minority-owned businesses, have limited resources to keep up with changing product formulations and new best practices. This is an equity issue.
Solutions must protect workers and the salons where they work. These salons have been a gateway out of poverty for many immigrant families — including my own — and provide a workplace for immigrants who might otherwise be turned away from work because of their limited English skills and newness to this country.
It might be easy for policymakers to pass a blanket policy requiring all nail salons to comply with best practices, as done in New York, and fine noncompliant salons. I caution against quickly implementing such policies. First and foremost, these policies can add an extraordinary burden to the financial crises that these businesses are experiencing. Immigrant-owned businesses uniquely suffer because of the lack of outreach to help with compliance.
A more humane and sustainable approach is to invest in a permanent education and outreach program to provide technical assistance to help these small businesses see value in going above and beyond to operate healthy salons. An example of this model is California’s Healthy Nail Salon Recognition Program, which helps salon owners meet best practices to be recognized as a “healthy” salon. In addition to this program that focuses on health, the city should partner with organizations to provide affordable multilingual continuing education about labor laws, regulations, and general business operations, such as how to increase sales and set competitive prices to not only support their employees but also grow their businesses.
The city already has many talented organizations that it could tap to realize this investment program. For example, I have worked with VietLead — a grassroots organization that has deep ties with the Vietnamese nail community and community at large in Philadelphia and South Jersey — on this issue for several years and could provide technical assistance in the area of occupational health.
There are also countless social services organizations like VietLead that have helped their respective immigrant communities adapt to this new home country, including during the pandemic. The Chamber of Commerce for Greater Philadelphia and other community partners, such as the African American Chamber of Commerce of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware and the Asian American Chamber of Commerce of Greater Philadelphia, recently announced a new partnership to create jobs for city residents through an equity lens. While most small family businesses might not be members of these organizations, this new partnership could offer their business expertise and political influence to create unique programs to help immigrant-owned small businesses.
The nail salon industry has been a saving grace for many immigrants, including my family. My mother worked in a salon to support her family and her children’s education since we immigrated to the United States in 1997. She is a skilled manicurist who is most comfortable working in a Vietnamese nail salon because the owner and her colleagues would not mind her broken English or her food choices, as they share cultural norms. The city’s investment in a permanent Healthy Nail Salon Recognition Program and other programs that support ongoing multilingual health and business operations training will not only benefit consumers and workers like my mom but also lift up many immigrant families that rely on this industry to achieve their American dream.
Tran Huynh is an assistant professor of environmental and occupational health at the Dornsife School of Public Health at Drexel University.