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The Worker Institute brings together researchers, educators and students with practitioners in labor, business and policymaking to address issues related to confronting systemic inequality and building a fair economy, robust democracy and just society. We will share opinion, analysis, research, data, insights and training from our faculty and staff.

New study documents low wages and precarity of nail salon workers in New York State despite recent legislation

Nail Salon Worker

The report reveals workers face substantial risk for speaking out about labor violations and shows unequal pay, treatment, and working conditions


CONTACT: Stephanie Olszewski,

DATE: April 5th, 2022

New study documents low wages and precarity of nail salon workers in New York State despite recent legislation

The report’s research reveals that workers face substantial risk for speaking out about labor violations and shows unequal pay, treatment, and working conditions 

New York, NY -- Today, the Worker Institute at Cornell ILR released a new report that maps out New York State’s nail salon industry and examines the labor conditions of nail salon workers, taking into context the COVID-19 pandemic and recent legislation regulating the industry. Research respondents described substantial employer noncompliance with new wage and hour requirements and health and safety regulations. The report highlights the struggle to improve pay and working conditions in the nail salon industry, as nail salon workers are highly precarious workers, earning low wages and with limited access to benefits.

“[A]t the end of the month, what they pay us is not enough. So, the stress of not being able to cover your economic responsibilities sometimes forces you to be very stressed at home... You can’t do many things because your income is limited,” said one focus group participant. “But, even if we complain… then you lose your job and you don’t even get the little bit [of money] you get with them… You have to endure and try to survive with what you manage to get at the end of the month.”

New York stands out nationwide for having the highest concentration of nail technicians, and for nail salon service prices that are significantly lower than the national average. As a workforce predominantly made up of immigrant women of color who often endure economic insecurity and have limited alternative job opportunities, the report finds that this precarity heightened fears of retaliation, seriously undermining workers’ willingness to speak out about violations.

Unvarnished: Precarity and Poor Working Conditions for Nail Salon Workers in New York State,” is based on an analysis of government data on the industry; focus groups with nail salon workers conducted in four languages; and a statewide survey of nail salons. The report highlights the challenges of raising standards in this industry and also calls attention to the role of worker organizing and advocacy in driving industry change, recommending that access to training and awareness of workers’ rights appear to make workers feel more empowered to speak out.

“As in many low-wage industries, nail salon businesses commonly strive to remain competitive by cutting corners on labor costs and health and safety measures,” said Zoë West, lead author on the report. “The impact this has on a workforce that is mostly immigrant women of color is far-reaching, as these workers are often core pillars of support for their families and communities with both their paid work and their unpaid care work."

The report recommends using a sectoral approach to raise standards comprehensively across the industry, to create a landscape where nail salons can improve conditions on a level playing field. Other key recommendations include: center worker voice and organizing in strategies to lift and enforce industry standards, and support worker organizations’ critical role in bolstering worker voice and agency; strengthen enforcement capacity; ensure a diverse representation of the workforce in any such initiatives; and make training more accessible and relevant for nail salon workers.

“This report reveals the harsh realities of the working conditions for nail salon workers,” said Risa Lieberwitz, Academic Director of the Worker Institute. “As importantly, the recommendations in the report – including raising standards through a sectoral approach – are aimed at improving working conditions in ways that fit the nature of the nail salon industry.”

Key findings of the report will be presented briefly on April 7th, 2022 at 9:30 AM in Zuccotti Park at a Nail Salon Worker Action and Rally convened by a coalition of organizations to call for the passing of the Nail Salon Minimum Standards Council Act. Read the full report here.

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