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How To Play Nice At The Nail Salon

Photographed by Phoebe Chuason.
When New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed a bill today to protect nail-salon workers, he made sure that their clients heard him loud and clear, too.

"The transactions a consumer has are not just economic transactions. There's also a moral component to those transactions," Cuomo said at Hostos Community College in the Bronx, where he signed the bill into law. "If you're giving that nail-salon owner your have an obligation to ask them β€” are they treating their workers fairly, with dignity, and within the bounds of the law?"

After The New York Times' Sarah Maslin Nir exposed rampant labor abuses in nail salons all across New York in May, state and city leaders began exploring how best to regulate one of New York's most lucrative industries β€” from both the labor and the consumer sides.

Cuomo and other state agencies first implemented emergency measures to track down and stop employers who abuse their workers. Today, Cuomo's signature made good on those measures: It is now legal for the state to shut down operations at any nail salon that does not treat its workers equitably.

Additionally, unlicensed nail workers will be allowed to register with the government as trainees while they study for their exams. Previously, these workers were forced to pay exorbitant prices to undergo training programs at salons, advocates say.

But Cuomo's comments about consumers spoke to a broader issue β€” how can New Yorkers keep pampering themselves while showing respect for the workers who serve them?

"In New York, everybody has really stressful lives," Pabrita Dash, a nail technician who works in uptown Manhattan and is now an advocate for workers' rights, told Refinery29. "When clients come in, we like to treat [them] really nicely, but sometimes, they get all tense for us. They try to give us their stress."

Dash described watching clients reprimand their technicians, complaining, "You don't know how to do it!" even though Dash was confident that her colleagues were well-trained. "They get really aggressive, and we are really scared at the time," Dash said. "Even if they are not nice to us, we have to survive, so we try to do it nice for them."

Dash told me that before immigrating to the United States, she worked as a counselor in Nepal. She says she feels comfortable conversing with her clients, listening to their problems, and telling them about hers, too. But for her colleagues whose English is limited, relationships are not so easily built.

"When we arrived here, nobody taught us how to communicate with our clients. We just know how to do manicure and pedicure," she said. "I think the customer is always right, but sometimes when they come in, they need to think about [us], too, not just about themselves. It's not our language. We are migrants. If customers understand a little bit, the environment is really nice for each other."

As to how best to understand, Dash and others feel Cuomo has the right idea: just ask.

"This job is a very good job," Narbada Chhetri, director of organizing and advocacy for a nail-salon workers' group, told Refinery29.

"Everyone would like to be [beautiful] ourselves, and to make beauty to others," Chhetri said. "Customers have to know about [their technicians]. Are they eating on time? How long are they working? If [customers] come to the salon at lunchtime, they have to wait for them [to finish eating]. If the customer is conscious and they are taking care of the workers, then it's gonna be good."

Some consumers have expressed concern that such reforms raise operational costs and therefore salon prices. But Pippa Lord, one of the founders of Handle With Care, an initiative to form better relationships between consumers and nail technicians, believes cheap and fair manicures do exist.

Rather than focus on price, Lord suggests following Handle With Care's four steps to ensuring you are supporting a salon that's fair for you and your manicurist. Handle With Care's advice is beautifully simple: speak, listen, ask, and look.

Editor's note: In response to The New York Times' investigation and the government's findings, Refinery29 began vetting the nail salons it features for best practices. Now, the salons we list on our "Best of New York Nail Salons" are all equitable workplaces, so our readers can feel good about supporting them.