As nail salons multiply, state struggles to control labor abuses
Massaging hands, painting nails, clipping cuticles, waxing legs, extending lashes, exfoliating skin — the work is exceptionally intimate. Few industries put paying client and low-wage worker in physical contact like nail salons and spas.
These businesses selling beauty and relaxation often illegally underpay their workers, many of whom are immigrants. But state enforcement officials only address what is believed to be a small number of the labor abuses in this industry.
Since 2015, 91 Connecticut nail salons and spas have been ordered to close temporarily by the state Department of Labor for violations in how they pay their employees, DOL enforcement data obtained by Hearst Connecticut Media shows.
Every one of these businesses paid their employees in cash, without withholding taxes, and they all lacked proper workers’ compensation coverage, state records show. None kept payroll records.
While some salons and spas treat workers well, people working in and studying the industry say the state’s 91 stop-work orders may reflect just a tiny fraction of the labor violations occurring in nail salons and spas around the state. The issue is literally at customers’ fingertips, but often goes unseen.
“I bring a lot of cases against employers for violating basic labor standards,” said James Bhandary-Alexander, a staff attorney at New Haven Legal Assistance. “Nails salons are notoriously not meeting those basic standards.”
Top officials at the state Department of Labor defend their work at a time of staff cutbacks, saying they’re reaching out to educate the industry — much of which is run by immigrants, especially from Asia. Still, the limited enforcement, paired with a lack of licensing requirements for workers, means Connecticut nail salons and spas could be the least regulated in the nation.
Connecticut is the only state that does not license nail technicians and estheticians, according to the Professional Beauty Association.
And it may get worse, even as many customers remain unaware of the violations.
With nail technicians and skin specialists targeted for faster than average job growth, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics, the problem of labor violations — along with other issues at the spas — may balloon, too.
‘More reactive than proactive’
Rampant is the exploitation of people — almost all women — who spend their days hunched over fingers and toes, massaging, painting and scrubbing, a May 2015 New York Times investigation found. The Times uncovered workers in the tri-state area who were regularly paid below minimum wage and sometimes were not paid at all.
As in other low-wage jobs, many of the workers were undocumented immigrants and spoke English poorly if at all, making them vulnerable to exploitation. And meager enforcement of labor laws meant employers typically got away with it.
The Times’ findings prompted the Department of Labor to conduct its first ever systematic investigation of wage violations in the nail and beauty business in August 2015.
DOL visited 25 randomly chosen salons and day spas, including some in Stamford, Darien, Westport, Southport, Greenwich and New Haven. DOL found serious wage violations at 23 of them — a 92 percent failure rate.
But the state has not conducted another nail and spa sweep. Instead, DOL has investigated complaints from employees or the public, issuing 66 stop-work orders to nail salons and spas after Aug. 2015.
Including the first sweep, DOL has inspected 142 nail salons and spas, following 239 claims from Aug. 2015 to Jan. 24. By comparison, New York’s labor department inspected 395 salons during sweeps in 2015 alone, the Times reported.
“Over time, with staff reductions, we have become a bit more reactive than proactive,” said Thomas Wydra, director of the Wage and Workplace Standards Division at DOL. “That is somewhat regrettable. But we have to investigate the claims we receive first and foremost.”
In Connecticut, most businesses ordered to stop work resolved their infractions in a matter of days and re-opened. Some shut down permanently. Some are repeat offenders.
Nine of the sanctioned salons and spas were in Milford, four in Wilton, three in Orange, two in Greenwich and one in Stamford.
Connecticut’s DOL needs to “take more initiative instead of waiting,” said Julia Trigila, owner of Scarlett’s Lash Boutique and Spa in Newington and lobbyist for the Connecticut Coalition of Esthetics. “There could be so many people who are being mistreated and they will never find out about it.”
Miliann Kang, a sociologist and professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, has conducted research at over 30 Asian-owned salons in New York since the 1990s. Although she has not done research in Connecticut, she has found a “huge range” of worker experiences, she said.
“I saw some workers who are treated very well,” Kang said. “Just like any small business, a lot depends on the business owner but also the situation of the salon. If the salon is doing well, it’s in a good location, if it has clientele that is willing to pay a fair wage and tips well, all of that is what needs to be in place for it to be a good job.”
She argued the broader issue is not labor violations, but an immigration policy that makes it difficult for people to come the United States and legally work, forcing immigrants into a shadow labor market.
No overtime, missing tips
Hearst Connecticut Media found many examples of apparent labor violations in nail salons and spas in the state at businesses where the state did not issue orders.
Marissa Watson, a 38-year-old Meriden resident, said she experienced numerous labor abuses while working at a West Hartford spa from February to November 2015.
Watson did nails, waxing and skin care for clients, but she also worked the front desk, giving her access to the computer holding the spa’s payroll records. She said her boss did not pay her or the two other employees all the tips they earned. Tips paid by credit cards were often left out of their paychecks.
Watson noticed that their paychecks were repeatedly $100 less than they were supposed to be, she said. Also, Watson was told she would be an employee when she was hired, but then was paid as an independent contractor for 23 months, she said.
She eventually quit. She never filed a complaint to the state about the spa, which is still operating.
Watson, who now operates her own nail business in Middletown, said she wanted to file a complaint. But she said, “I didn’t know technically if I had proof” of the alleged violations.
Andrea Doyle has owned Nails by Andrea in Branford for 16 years and also works for a manufacturer, teaching nail technicians how to use their products. Doyle has heard many stories from workers who were not paid overtime or all their tips, she said.
“There was another person that I spoke to — they are asking her to work almost every day, working all these hours and they only give her $120 for the week,” said Doyle.
On a Friday morning in January, five Stamford nail salons buzzed with women looking for pampering for the cost of a couple $20s.
At one salon, which received and was released from a stop work order in 2015, a half-dozen women hunched at manicure tables and pedicure baths around the room, polish fumes acrid in the air. Their young manager leaned at the front counter, long dark hair framing her frowning face.
Immigrants from China, they all arrived that morning in a van from Queens, she said. They would depart the same way after 7:30 p.m.
“The economy is bad now,” she whispered. “We can’t make money.”
A few streets over, Jacob Zhou jotted down customer appointments in a graph-ruled notebook. In Dec. 2017, he took over as owner of In Nails and Spa, which has never received a state citation, after working in salons in Long Island, New York City, Westport and New Canaan for seven years.
Zhou said he “definitely” knows of salons that do not pay minimum wage or overtime, but “I think it’s not a really bad thing because it keeps you surviving.”
“If everything is on the regulation, maybe a regular manicure/pedicure would be $50,” he said. “Nobody can afford it. In my store, I don’t have low salary workers. Everybody does good jobs so I pay a lot.”
Coerced to keep working
In 2015, Tatsemei D. Ampush filed a civil complaint in federal court against Pinky Nail and Spa in Branford, alleging she was paid less than the minimum wage. Court documents claimed that in 2012, Ampush worked 10.5 hours a day six days a week and was paid about $6.19 an hour. The state minimum wage in 2012 was $8.25.
Ampush was also never paid overtime, court documents said. In total, the complaint alleged Pinky Nail and Spa underpaid Ampush by $32,104 from 2012 to 2014. The case was settled out of court. The terms are not public.
Bhandary-Alexander, the New Haven Legal Assistance lawyer who represented Ampush in court, said in the past five years, he has handled cases for about 20 workers regarding five or six salons in the New Haven area.
“We’ve definitely seen a lot of overtime violations,” he said. “There are complaints about discrimination... Sometimes employers take a cut of the tips, which they are not supposed to be able to do.”
Bhandary-Alexander also said he has worked with at least one client who was coerced or threatened to stay in the job, a form of human trafficking, according to legal definitions.
Fairfield County, especially Greenwich, is an epicenter for trafficking because of its proximity to New York, said Resa Spaziani, supervisor of wage and workplace standards for the Connecticut Department of Labor, speaking in Greenwich on Jan. 16.
“Many times, the employer will have a residence and he will have eight, nine, 10 people in two bedrooms,” she said.
The American dream
Driving labor violations are intense competition, vulnerable workers and owners’ ignorance of the law. Customers want the lowest prices, sometimes willfully ignorant of how that drives down wages and invites abuses.
For many reasons, it is hard to get an exact count of nail salons and related businesses in Connecticut.
Nearly 1,000 were registered as nail salons to remit and collect sales tax as of the end of 2017, data from the state Department of Revenue Services shows. But that may not include all nail businesses. Spas are not separated from hair salons in the tax reporting.
On a recent drive on a five-mile section of the Post Road in Orange and Milford, there were signs for 19 nail salons and spas. Some use bargain prices to lure customers. On a Friday in January, a few Stamford nail businesses offered manicure and pedicure combinations for $20 or $25.
Greenwich resident Abbe Large said she would be willing to pay more for a manicure if she knew workers were being fairly paid. She had “no idea” labor violations were occurring, she said.
“Those responsible for such treatment of innocent workers trying to provide for their families should be reprimanded for any abuse of people,” she said.
Like salon and spa workers, many owners are new to the United States. Some do not fully understand labor laws because they are not competent in English, the laws change and they are used to the laws in their home countries.
Jim Amann, former speaker of Connecticut’s House of Representatives, now a lobbyist, recalled a 2015 meeting at the New Haven Korean Church in Hamden between about 300 Korean nail salon owners and staff from the Department of Labor.
“There were individual salon owners, women, that stood up and said ‘I pay all my employees in cash,’” said Amann, who represented the salon owners at the time. “The labor person almost fainted and said ‘You can’t do that!’”
The salon owners had requested the meeting with DOL. “A lot of them want to conform, want to be legitimate, want to be part of the American dream,” Amann said.
‘Harder to track’
DOL doesn’t have the staff to increase its investigations, Wydra said. In the last decade, the number of agents has dropped from “upwards of 40” to about 30.
While some may criticize DOL for not doing enough, the agency is doing more to regulate these businesses than other state departments.
“Everybody always wants more resources, but we’ve doing a good job with existing staff and using the philosophy of combining enforcement with outreach and education,” Kurt Westby, the state Commissioner of Labor, said in a written statement. “It’s also important to recognize that Connecticut has a very effective tool in fighting labor violations, and that’s the Stop Work Order… Very few Labor Departments have the authority to issue Stop Work Orders, and it has served our state well in protecting our workers.”
The salon and spa industry is challenging to regulate because it is large, spread out and constantly changing.
In May 2017, 3,110 manicurists worked in Connecticut, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported. The same month, 760 skincare specialists — estheticians and cosmetologists — worked in the state. This data is collected through business surveys and may undercount some workers.
“We do see [salons and spas] pop up and then shift locations, perhaps quicker than other industries can,” Wydra said. “The changing of a business name is sort of consistent with when one moves. So it can be harder to track and harder to keep up with badly behaved employers if they move around so quickly.”
Undocumented nail and spa workers also do not report their abuses, Wydra said, because they fear DOL will question their immigration status. DOL staff follow the Connecticut Trust Act, which outlines very narrow circumstances in which law enforcement share information with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Help needed for progress
From 2015 to June 2018, the state Department of Labor issued 541 stop-work orders to businesses other than nail salons and spas.
“Those not issued to nail salons were primarily issued at construction sites, and to a lesser degree, restaurants,” Wydra said. “Typically, we find the same statutes are violated at these work sites.”
Kang, the UMass professor, said cracking down on the nail business in isolation would be unfair and could create “a climate of intimidation when so many immigrants are already feeling fearful.”
The response should not be nail and spa sweeps, she said, but federal immigration reform.
“Why are so many undocumented immigrants being hired into service jobs? Because this is not just happening in the nail salon industry,” she said. “It’s because we are not allowing them legal pathway to come here and yet we want to take advantage of their cheap labor and that’s a setup for labor rights violations.”
Wydra believes progress is possible with help from workers and clients. “We’re big on education,” he said.
“If you are a client or a customer in a salon and you believe what you are seeing when you are there is a violation of somebody’s rights you have some civic obligation to report. We take anonymous complaints.”
Staff reporter Hannah Dellinger contributed to this report.
email@example.com; Twitter: @emiliemunson