Eugenia Colon paints her own nails. One day this fall, they were decorated in delicate V-shaped black and white stripes, and one was bejeweled with a miniature bow-tie and several gems so that it resembled a tuxedo.
But where others might have seen artistry, Colon detected imperfection. “They’re actually horrible,” she said, glancing ruefully at her nails. She had painted them during a break at the Williamsburg salon where she works as an esthetician, but before the polish dried, a client arrived for a facial. The gloves Colon wore to apply lotions and extract impurities from the woman’s skin ruined her own careful manicure.
Smudged polish is a minor hazard of Colon’s job, one that is overshadowed by concerns about unfair working conditions, punitive payment schemes, and potential health consequences. It was at Spa Jolie, the downtown day spa where she worked in early 2015, that Colon, a former nail salon owner and longtime manicurist, met Sarah Maslin Nir, the New York Times reporter who wrote an exposé, published in May, that upended New York’s nail industry.
Colon, who previously suffered from sarcoidosis, a disease that her doctor said was caused by the long hours she spent breathing in chemicals associated with doing nails, was featured in Nir’s story; a picture of her holding an X-ray of her damaged lungs tops the second section of the two-part series. “I really love what I do,” Colon told CJR in October, echoing a similar quote in the Times story. “The question was, do I want to die for it?”
The Times series painted a stark picture of “rampant exploitation” in the nail salon industry, detailing egregious labor abuses in the first installment and disregard for worker safety in the second. In the half year since the series was published, nail salon legislation was drafted, passed, and signed into law as New York Governor Andrew Cuomo promised to inspect every nail salon in the state. In response, activists celebrated, workers protested, owners sued, consumers boycotted, and a string of critics argued and counter-argued over the details and scope of the paper’s reporting.
But the series’ effects on the daily lives of the city’s mainly female immigrant nail salon workers and owners have been less fully explored. For Colon and others, the media attention was its own kind of force. The Times report thrust people and communities who are normally invisible into the light. They were there all along—crowding the sidewalks of Queens and Staten Island, waiting for the subway, waiting for their papers, waiting for clients to enter salons across the city and pick a color—but their voices were rarely heard.
While Nir connected CJR to Colon, the other salon owners and workers were reached independently. Even those who were not mentioned in the Times series acknowledged that, for better or worse, the stories and the reforms they sparked have shaped their lives. The promise of fair wages and legal protections has given some nail techs a new sense of possibility. In salons and the offices of labor activists, these women have grown more vocal and determined about advocating for their rights.
That’s a caste system in modern-day New York. And the people who are subject to it didn’t even know.
Carmen, a 23-year-old Mexican-born manicurist and mother of two, is one of them. Her first inkling that something had changed came not from the pages of the Times but from the television in her Staten Island living room. One day in August she heard Cuomo on the Spanish-language news, discussing recently passed laws to protect nail salon workers.
Carmen, who asked to be identified by her first name only because she is undocumented, works three days a week at a nail salon in the Staten Island neighborhood of Prince’s Bay. She got her first nail salon job by lying. She told the boss she was 28 and had two years of nail salon experience. In reality, she was 18, had never worked in a nail salon before, and didn’t even know how say “I’m looking for work” in English. When that became clear, the salon owners, a couple, trained her. Carmen was grateful, but she was making just enough to cover the $30 cost of her daughter’s daycare, so she left for another salon that paid $50 for an 11-hour day. “At least it was something,” Carmen says.
After hearing Cuomo on TV, Carmen saw changes at her current salon. Her pay increased from $60 for a 10-hour day to $75 for an eight-hour one. The owner hung up a Bill of Rights for nail workers that notes that New York State’s minimum wage is $8.75 per hour and gives a number to call to report abuses. Every salon in the state is now required to clearly display such a document in six languages.
In September, through chatter at the salon, Carmen learned that she could apply for a so-called trainee license for free at the Workers United union office in Manhattan. One of the major reforms spurred by the Times series, the trainee licensed offers a fix for the subset of workers like Carmen who are currently employed but unlicensed, and who might have lost their jobs once the state began enforcing the rules more strictly. The trainee license provides a two-year buffer, ensuring that new workers, whether untrained or unlicensed, can still get hired, but won’t be underpaid while working toward a nail specialty license.
So one morning, Carmen and three girlfriends, all manicurists like herself, met at the Staten Island ferry to make the trip. Although Carmen arrived in Staten Island seven years ago, this would be only her second time in Manhattan. The four friends raced to catch the 8:30am ferry, then the subway to 14th Street. When they came out of the station, they wandered around for 20 minutes, lost in the bewildering city. “Everyone was saying here, there, there!” Carmen says, until a friendly fireman pointed them to their destination. The way Carmen tells it, it sounds like a great adventure.
In the months since the Times story appeared, Carmen’s life has changed incrementally for the better, though it’s far from perfect. “When an inspector comes in, we don’t have to run out now,” she tells CJR. “Before, when the inspector came, [my boss] said, ‘Immigration is coming! Run!’ ”
Perhaps more importantly, and due in no small part to the required Bill of Rights and the intervention of activists like the ones Carmen met at Workers United, she now has the language to discuss her rights and the laws that pertain to her—and the confidence to use it. The media attention reminded readers that nail salon workers are protected by the government, but for the workers themselves, it wasn’t necessarily a reminder. It was news.
The Times stories were less welcome to nails salon owners who, maliciously or not, had benefitted from the status quo, and suddenly found themselves the object of New Yorkers’ ire.
Sona Gurung started as a manicurist soon after arriving in this country 18 years ago from Nepal. In 2007, after years filing, polishing, massaging, and building up a loyal clientele, she started her own business near Union Square, becoming one of a small but growing number of Nepali nail salon owners. Her salon, Sona Nails, occupies a narrow strip of Manhattan real estate with two pedicure chairs, two manicure tables, and a counter that faces First Avenue where customers can dry their nails. Of the more than a dozen salon owners CJR approached, Gurung was one of the few who agreed to talk.
She remembers the day that Nir, the New York Times reporter, interviewed her at a Dunkin Donuts near the salon. One of Gurung’s employees had told Nir that that she made $35 a day. Gurung told Nir this wasn’t true, but she also said that $35 was a good wage, according to the Times. “Why would my workers lie? They are like family,” Gurung told Nir, according to notes the series editor, Michael Luo, shared with CJR.
Months later, Gurung found out she’d been quoted in Nir’s Times article through a client, and then “it was everywhere, on Facebook, in the newspaper,” Gurung says through a translator. The Times story was published in four languages, but Nepali wasn’t one of them, so Gurung’s son read and translated it for her. He told her she’d been quoted in the Times saying $35 a day is a good wage for new employees, but advised her not to worry. “You’re a good mom. You’re a good person,” he told her. “You can take it easy.”
But in an interview, Gurung said she’d told Nir something different: that her own starting salary 18 years ago was $35, and that it had been good for her. She also said that when asked, her employees denied telling Nir they were paid $35. “I trust my employees,” says Gurung, who is not the first source to challenge her portrayal in the story.
Gurung says the new laws make it difficult for small business owners like herself, and she has a point. In the wake of the series, the state has required that owners purchase a wage bond—insurance that can be used by the courts in the event that owners attempt to evade paying workers. The Korean American Nail Salon Association and the Chinese Nail Salon Association sued the state in September, saying the wage bond requirement imposes an unfair burden on owners. But the lawsuit was recently dropped after a court ruled the state had “sufficiently demonstrated that nail salon workers are being deprived of legally due wages.
In late October, Reason magazine attempted to dismantle Nir’s reporting in a series of articles alleging that her account was not just exaggerated, but factually wrong. Since the Times series was published, Reason, a libertarian news and politics magazine, has written at least nine articles about it. In response to Reason’s critique, Margaret Sullivan, the Times’ public editor, wrote that “in places,” Nir’s series “went too far in generalizing about an entire industry.”
Luo, Nir’s editor, tells CJR that Reason was far too credulous of accounts by nail salon owners and industry trade groups. Indeed, the two experts Reason quotes to challenge the Times’ second installment belong to interested industry groups, and many of the alleged misquotes come from sources, like Gurung, who are understandably unhappy with how they were portrayed. Luo says he reviewed Nir’s notes from her conversation with Gurung and they line up with what’s in the story.
Between August and October, members of the Chinese-American community organized three separate protests in front of the New York Times building in midtown Manhattan. Protesters carried signs that read, “New York Times, take it back,” and “Apologize now! Fire Nir!” By the third demonstration, protesters were criticizing the scope of the Times reporting and the personal attacks had gained prominence, with demonstrators calling Nir an “ignorant careerist” and posters depicting her with a crossed-out mouth and eyes.
Even if the extent of the abuse in the nails industry was exaggerated, the fact of it isn’t being questioned. Shortly after the Times piece came out, Adhikaar, a Nepali social justice organization, published a report based on a survey of close to 200 Nepali manicurists in New York City over three years. The report found that most workers made a flate rate of between $40 and $70 a day, and only 7 percent were paid overtime when they worked more than 40 hours a week, which many did. The report also found that less than 10 percent always wore gloves or masks, and many were required to provide their own protective gear.
Luo says that understanding an entire industry was challenging, but also that this was the purpose of the series. The task was complicated by the fact that there had been very little oversight of the industry over the years. Both he and Nir have pointed to the results of the state’s inspections, which confirm that abuses were widespread. From May through September, 42 percent of inspected salons were cited for wage violations, according to Frank Sobrino, a spokesman for Governor Cuomo.
At times, though, Nir does seem to overstate the case against salon owners. At a panel in October at the Museum of New York, Nir quoted the inspection statistics, including that around 82 percent of owners didn’t provide their workers with pay stubs. “Which,” she told the crowd, “means that 82 percent don’t pay minimum wage.” What it actually means is that it’s hard to know what they were paying their employees because of the lack of documentation.
Even proponents of the series acknowledge that its impact has been felt unevenly, and that the fallout is making life harder for some workers.
Lucia, a softspoken 52-year-old immigrant from Mexico, works in a nail salon out of necessity. Since August, she and the two other Latina workers at her salon on Long Island had their hours cut, while her Korean coworkers continued working five days a week, Lucia says. Officially, all the manicurists now get 30-minute lunch breaks, but they have to notify a manager before leaving, so few do. Lucia, who, like Carmen, is undocumented, asked that her full name not be used for fear that she might lose her job.
Lucia’s experience reflects what the Times stories called “an ethnic caste system” in the nail salon industry, with Koreans at the top, then other Asian workers, and finally Hispanics and other non-Asians. Nir’s treatment of this issue is blunt, partly because for her, that was one of the most shocking parts of the reporting. “That’s a caste system in modern-day New York,” Nir tells CJR. “And the people who are subject to it didn’t even know.”
“The physical work tires you out,” Lucia says, but that’s not the worst part. “The problem is that psychologically, there’s a lot of pressure.”
Lucia moved to the United States 11 years ago and has worked at the nails salon for four years. She mostly gives massages and cleans. It’s because she’s Hispanic, she explains: “Only Koreans get to do manicures.” Until recently, Lucia didn’t mind. Clients loved her massages and asked for her specifically. But now, she needs to practice nail work so she can pass the exams for the nail specialty license. She suspects her bosses are trying to push her out. Her manager sometimes tells customers that Lucia is too tired or old to do massages, and that she’s slow.
“You can’t say anything,” Lucia says. “You just listen and stay silent.”
If Trump is president, he will kick all the Mexicans out. Then who’s going to do your pedicure?
While Lucia and I were talking on the second floor of a McDonald’s in Queens, she asked to move tables after a young man sat down next to us. He looked like a student and was watching something on his phone. “He’s Korean,” Lucia explained, after we moved.
Nir’s story exposed some of the inner workings of communities that are often viewed only relative to the majority, and how different minority groups interact with each other. What she revealed was ugly—that greed, racism, and exploitation exist across all strata of society—but also provided a kind of nuance that’s often missing from social justice narratives.
Within communities, existing networks pulled together to share information about the changes in the industry. Chinese-American owners organized via WeChat, Sona Gurung received help from fellow Nepali owners, community group MinKwon published an owners’ handbook in both Korean and Chinese, and Workers United worked primarily, though not exclusively, with the Latino community, distributing Spanish-language flyers advertising free workshops and trainee licensing help in Queens and Staten Island.
Adriana Cruz, a community organizer at Workers United, is concerned about a workplace climate that pits minority groups against each other instead of uniting workers for a common cause. In October, a few weeks after Carmen, the Staten Island manicurist, visited the Workers United office in Manhattan, Cruz paid Carmen a visit at home to invite her to participate in a nail salon workers’ meeting. They sat at Carmen’s kitchen table under a poster of the alphabet and a “Happy Birthday” banner left over from a long-ago celebration. As they talked, Carmen joked about how, at her salon, the Chinese workers get to sit with their phones and wait for clients while the Mexicans clean.
“Part of this process is to see how we can unite the Chinese and Latinas and Koreans …” Cruz started to explain.
“The Chinese are pretty cold-hearted,” Carmen interjected. “[They say,] ‘She’s no good. She’s new. She doesn’t paint well.’ They make problems with the clients.”
“This is for workers of all races,” said Cruz.
Ethnic divisions aside, Carmen has the makings of a talented community organizer. With evident pride, she told Cruz about her latest revolutionary adventure. Once the nail salon legislation took effect, the owners began buying plastic gloves, but the gloves were so cheap that they were not at all protective. Even more egregious, the owner had her own private stash of higher-quality gloves. Carmen asked for better gloves. When her requests were ignored, she started wearing two pairs instead of one. Some of her coworkers followed suit. “Just last week, she bought better gloves!” Carmen told Cruz.
It was a small but meaningful victory for Carmen, but other hurdles aren’t as easily crossed. Her dream is to be a hairdresser, but that seems out of reach. The free English classes at the local library are held on Wednesdays, one of her work days, and the money she earns along with her husband, who works at an Italian restaurant, barely covers expenses. She has kids to feed, rent and electricity to pay, and when she can, she sends money home to her parents in Oaxaca. “Sometimes the money doesn’t add up,” says Carmen.
Then, as she often does when things are difficult, she talks of god. “You have to keep going,” she says. “God is great, and you have to have faith.”
While Carmen’s relationships with her bosses and coworkers are not always pleasant, it’s the demanding and insensitive customers who sometimes bring her to tears.
She remembers her worst encounter with a client, back when she was just starting out as a manicurist. It was the end of the day, and the final customer was displeased with Carmen’s work. Carmen scrubbed off the polish and started again, while her boss, and later her coworkers, went home, leaving her alone with the customer.
“The woman was saying, ‘You don’t understand me. You don’t know what I want.’ ” Since she didn’t speak English, Carmen just looked at her helplessly. “My friend had already left, so I was alone with her, and I’m filing and filing.” Finally, the woman got up, pulled out a few dollars, called Carmen “stupid,” and flung the money at her.
“I’ll never forget that,” says Carmen, tearing up. “I used to be so scared. I was so sensitive if anyone didn’t like my work. I felt really bad. I still do, but life goes on.”
Now she’s more likely to defend herself, and since the new laws took effect, her bosses are more likely to be around. Recently, she was chatting with a customer who supports presidential candidate Donald Trump. “If Trump is president, he will kick all the Mexicans out,” Carmen told the client. “Then who’s going to do your pedicure?”
Eugenia Colon, the esthetician featured in the Times, is neither invisible nor inaudible, but before meeting Nir, Colon didn’t think anyone wanted to listen. A native New Yorker, Colon was born and raised near Cypress Hills, on the Brooklyn-Queens border, where she now owns a home.
“Nails is a billion-dollar industry,” Colon says. She returns to that phrase often—for her, it’s the catchall explanation for how owners can get away with paying their workers so little; buying cheap, toxic products; and not providing medical benefits, all without the government intervening. She’d criticized the industry for years but didn’t think it could change—until the Times got involved. “That was crazy,” Colon says of Nir’s work. “I was very amazed [by] how she did it and got the attention of the governor and all that.”
Colon sees herself as an advocate for nail salon workers, or perhaps an agent of justice striking down the evil salon owners. “I wouldn’t mind being an inspector myself. I’d shut them all down,” she says. Now when she visits a salon, she scans the walls for Bill of Rights posters; she also checks for gloves and masks, and whether workers are sterilizing the equipment. She got into an altercation at one salon when she tried taking a picture of two identical licenses on the wall.
The day the story came out, Colon’s sister saw her picture in the paper and called from California. “Baby sister, I’m proud of you,” she said.
“Because not everybody talks about that,” says Colon, that being the billion-dollar industry that Colon, by sharing her story, helped change.
But Colon says it’s out of love. “I do have a heart,” she says. “I love nails. But it could get better.”Chava Gourarie is a freelance writer based in New York and a former CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow her on Twitter at @ChavaRisa