Nail Salon Workers & the Real Cost of a Manicure

May 19, 2015

An investigative report by the New York Times uncovered the deplorable and frequently illegal conditions faced by employees at nail salons. This lesson has students consider different points of view on the subject, and how they, and consumers in general, should respond.  

Learning Objectives

Students will:

  • read about the working conditions for nail salon employees
  • evaluate different points of view about the workers’ situation
  • brainstorm possible actions they can take
  • identify and evaluate the possible consequences, both intended and unintended, of actions they might take


Ask students to share what they know about nail salons, and any experiences they have had with them--as customers, employees, or perhaps as family members or friends of customers or employees. Tell students that in this lesson they will be learning about the people who do manicures and pedicures at nail salons.

Ask students to read the backgrounder below. Give them a few minutes to write down any points they want to remember or any immediate reactions to what they have read.

Background Reading:  Nail Salon Investigation

Nail salons have become big business in big cities like New York. As more shops compete for customers, the price for a manicure has dropped to an average of $10.50 in New York City. (The cost is higher in other parts of the country.) While this is good news for those who want to get a low-cost manicure or pedicure, it’s terrible for the people who do the work. A May 2015 investigation by the New York Times revealed the terrible conditions under which nail salon employees labor:

  • New employees are often forced to work without pay while they learn the job, sometimes a period of months.
  • Workers make as little as $10 per day or $1.50 per hour.
  • They sometimes work more than 60 hours a week, without the overtime pay that is required by law.
  • Bosses sometimes require new employees to pay for the privilege of being employed at a given salon
  • Workers are exposed to toxic chemicals that cause miscarriages, birth defects, respiratory diseases, and skin disorders.

How can this kind of exploitation happen when there are minimum wage laws and government agencies that monitor workplace conditions?

First, manicurists are considered tipped workers like waiters at restaurants and so they can legally be paid less than minimum wage. If their tips don’t bring their pay to the level of minimum wage, employers are required to contribute the difference. But it’s difficult, if not impossible, to get them to do so. Second, many manicurists live in the United States without legal documentation. Because they work here illegally, they are not protected by laws that safeguard most workers. They don’t dare file complaints, because they would risk exposing themselves to possible deportation. Even workers who are in the United States legally fear losing their jobs if they file complaints. Finally, laws that regulate cosmetic safety are minimal and outdated, and the companies that produce these products lobby against new, stricter regulations.

When you put all these factors together, it’s a terrible situation for thousands of nail salon employees. Yet most people know nothing about it, including nail salon customers. 

Opinion Continuum

Tell students that you are going to read aloud a few statements related to nail salon workers. Mark one corner of the room "I agree completely with this statement" and the opposite corner "I disagree completely with this statement." Indicate to students the line between the two corners. After you read each of the following statements, ask students to stand at the place on the line that shows the extent to which they agree or disagree with the statement.

  • No one is forced to take a job at a nail salon. People who work at nail salons want to work there, regardless of the pay.
  • "Consumers should not participate in exploiting service workers just as they should not benefit from slavery..."  (Juliet Schor,  professor of sociology at Boston College)
  • People want cheap manicures, and they can get them at a lot of nail salons. If one salon charges more so that they can pay workers more, they’ll just lose their business. Nail salon workers get paid as much as the market will bear.
  • The government should enforce stricter regulations about dangerous chemicals in salon products.
  • I would be willing to pay more for a manicure if it meant that the salon workers could make a decent wage.

While students are still standing on the line, read aloud to students the two vignettes below about nail salon workers. The vignettes come from the New York Times articles.

After you have read the vignettes, read each of the statements above again, asking students to stand at the point on the continuum that represents their opinion now, after learning more about the subject. Ask students who have changed where they are standing in the line: What made you change your view?


1. Jing Ren is 20 years old, a recent immigrant from China. She lives in a one-bedroom apartment in Flushing, NY, with five other people. Each day, a van picks her and other manicurists up and takes them to a nail salon in a wealthy community about 20 miles away. Jing Ren, who speaks little English, paid $100 to the salon owner to be able to work there, then worked for three months without pay while she learned the skills of her job. When she finally began to receive a paycheck, it amounted to less than $3 an hour.

2. A 2006 study found that 20 percent of a group of 500 manicurists suffered from a persistent cough. Doctors report that they see many nail salon workers with recurring nosebleeds, sore throat, and even scarring of the lungs. At one nail salon in Queens, two women have had miscarriages (one of them has had five) and another has a developmentally delayed son. Numerous nail workers suffer from skin disorders, such as black pustules on the hands, warts, discoloration, and even having fingerprints disappear.

What Can You Do?

After the New York Times published the articles exposing the terrible conditions for workers at nail salons, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo charged a state task force with investigating the situation and setting new rules, including requiring nail salons to pay workers back wages. The state will also begin a campaign (provided in six languages) to educate salon workers about their rights. And although the industry is regulated at the state level, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has announced that the city will also investigate conditions and provide education for salon workers.

What can you do?

As a class, brainstorm possible actions. Have a scribe write students’ ideas down on chart paper or the board.

Here are a few ideas to get you started:

  • Picket at nail salons
  • Write to your state legislators
  • Stop going to nail salons
  • Raise awareness about the issue throughout the student body

For each item on your list, discuss the possible outcomes of the action—both those outcomes that you hope to achieve and outcomes you might not intend, but that might happen anyway. Help students arrive at (and implement, if possible) a plan that is both doable and that achieves the outcomes students want. 


The Price of Nice Nails
Perfect Nails, Poisoned Workers
Cuomo Orders Emergency Measures to Protect Workers at Nail Salons
De Blasio Says New York Will Investigate Nail Industry Practices