Industry in Crisis: Is Organizing a Union the Answer?

labor union salon workers

What do cheap manicures, worker exploitation, and coronavirus have in common? They share an epicenter: New York City. Now as beauty professionals across the country struggle to claim unemployment benefits and survive salon shutdowns, the issue of workers rights takes center stage. Our guest Luis Gomez of Workers United NY/NJ describes efforts to improve conditions for the most vulnerable workers in the beauty industry. 

Show Notes


New York Nail Salon Workers Association (NYNSWA)
Instagram: @nailtechsunited
Twitter: @NailTechsUnited

Race to the Bottom: Low Prices & Stolen Wages in NY’s Nail Salon Industry

The COVID-19 Nail Salon Worker Relief & Resilience Platform

NYNSWA Resilience Fund

Nail Salon Accountability Act

NYCOSH (New York Committee for Occupational Safety & Health)

New York Times (5/7/15) – The Price of Nice Nails

Stylist (3/20) – Let’s Not Greenwash Worker Exploitation

Wikipedia – Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire



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Edited for length and clarity.


JAIME: Welcome to Outgrowth: A Slice of Pro Beauty with your hosts Jaime Schrabeck.

ASHLEY: And Ashley Gregory. Five years ago, the beauty industry was rocked by a New York Times article focused on the exploitation of nail salon workers.

JAIME: What’s happened since to protect workers and hold salon owners accountable should be a warning to the entire beauty industry.

ASHLEY: To share his perspective, we’re joined by Luis Gomez from the New York/New Jersey Workers United organization. Let’s grow together.

JAIME: Luis, thank you so much for joining us today. Before we get started talking about your work as the director of organizing for the labor union Workers United, please tell us how you’re feeling after battling COVID-19. 

LUIS: Yeah. Well, thank you so much for inviting me. Really excited to be here. Let me just say I’m super blessed and happy to be here with you. I was sick since the beginning of April, and just now I’m on the mend. Unfortunately, I was having to travel into the city to the office even though we were closed and I probably got sick going into Manhattan and having to travel around downtown for awhile. But, fortunately, I didn’t have the worst of it like so many other people in New York City. I’m really lucky to at least have been in relatively good health and fortunate to have a loving partner to help me through. So thank you for inviting me.

ASHLEY: I’m so excited that you’re here, Luis, because first of all, I’m very glad that you were able to beat this COVID-19 thing that’s going around everywhere, but secondly to discuss the important work that you’re doing in the beauty industry. Now, when it comes to being the director of organizing for a labor union, I know that the union helps workers in a lot of different categories. When did Workers United start working with beauty professionals?

LUIS: Workers United has a long history in terms of like garment workers and service workers as a whole. We have some roots around the Triangle Waist and all that history from New York. We recently started working with nail technicians here in New York City. In 2015, when the New York Times exposé really brought to light a lot of the conditions that workers were facing in the industry. We had actually started joining forces with other organizations here in the city, right before that article came out. There was an effort led by NYCOSH, which is sort of like the OSHA, if you will, a local entity of New York City.

ASHLEY: Mm-mm. 

LUIS: We’re leading the efforts along with Adhikaar, which is a Nepalese workers’ center in Queens, New York, along with Planned Parenthood, a lot of organizations around health and safety in the salons specifically in New York City. And then shortly after those efforts, the articles came out and really turned the city effort into a statewide effort to reform the industry.

ASHLEY: Now, as a bit of a history buff, when you refer to the Triangle, are you referring to the factory fire?

LUIS: Yea, yeah, yeah.

ASHLEY: Oh, wow. Okay.

LUIS: The, the garment workers in New York City and things like that. There’s been lots of mergers over the years as Workers United are proud to have that history as part of our history.

ASHLEY: That’s very cool, and we will definitely link in the show notes more information about that if you’re not as into history, because I’m a bit of a nerd that way, but that was something that happened way back in 1911 in New York. You mentioned briefly the New York Times article, and I know Jaime wants to talk to you about that.

JAIME: Luis, to clarify, the New York Nail Salon Workers Association is affiliated with the union, but it’s a membership organization. It’s not a union yet.

LUIS: That’s correct. Actually Workers United as a union decided that we could really lend our resources to expand in the worker organizing piece of the work that was already being done through policy mostly in trainings in the city. Shortly after we were able to establish the New York Nail Salon Workers Association, which is an association of nail technicians all over the city. We formed this association as a vehicle in terms of workers being able to organize through a body. To become a member of this association, workers are required to take close to 12 hours of know-your-rights trainings, which also includes industry background information about how to navigate licenses and things like that. So even though the workers are not formally part of a union, I think the most important piece for us to start with is how do we start building community amongst workers in such a spread out industry. There’s over 4,000 salons in New York City, close to 35,000 workers or more. How do we start bringing workers together? How do we start talking about the issues that workers are facing? And so, first thing first, we have the New York Nail Salon Workers Association.

ASHLEY: So walk me through a little bit about what services are offered to a member of this organization. If someone were to join today, what could they expect?

LUIS: I think what was important for us as an organization was to find out first and foremost what were the needs of the community in terms of services, benefits, or whatever the case may be. When we first started doing surveys with workers, we listed out all the different issues that we imagined in the industry and we also left spaces blank on the surveys so that workers could tell us what issues they saw. Workers were dealing with so many different issues, whether it’s wage theft, whether it’s not having the proper health and safety equipment, but for the workers that we were engaging with, the main thing that they all mentioned was access to the nail technician’s license. The access to the license for the workers have been very difficult. Schools weren’t accommodating workers in terms of the way they taught the curriculum. And when a lot of the inspections would happen in the salons, business owners would have the workers leave the salons because they didn’t have nail technician’s license.

ASHLEY: Oh, wow.

LUIS: And so there was a core piece that workers connected having their nail technician’s license to the dignity of not having to run out of a salon in the middle of winter. So for us, it was really important as the labor partner, the union partner in this, in thinking about, okay. How can we start to address the issues that the workers are bringing to us? And so we partnered with the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health NYCOSH in establishing the first not-for-profit nail technician school probably in the United States, right? But definitely in New York. We’re the first not-for-profit school for technicians. So when we talk about the benefits that workers can expect, our core piece is education, and that’s education about their rights as well as education to get their nail technician’s licenses. We have hands-on training courses, and we have support for workers that are dealing with wage theft. We have support for workers that are having trouble accessing, for example, sick days that the city provides. And I think that is one of the main resources that workers can expect when they join the association.

JAIME: For listeners, and many of them will be beauty professionals that may now just be realizing that many of your members are unlicensed professionals. They’re colleagues of ours, but they’re being worked in salons by salon owners without the proper licensure. That might’ve been something hard to accept, until they take a step back and realize how disadvantaged the workers are in accessing the education, as you say, or having the support of salon owners who  are going to be requiring licenses. Obviously the salon owners are making money off of these workers.

LUIS: The work that we’ve been doing has been work to disrupt a lot of the injustices that were happening in the industry. We’re talking beyond what’s happening in the salons. We’re talking about the schools as well. We’re talking about the lack of access to benefits for workers. So when we talk about the schools, a lot of the schools were using the community as their source of leeching money out of them. It was really tough to hear how schools would tell workers that there were no testing sites in the city, and they say, hey, the closest, testing site is Albany, which is about a three hour drive from the city. They would pack a van full of workers and charge each worker $150 for the trip up to Albany. And this was happening after schools weren’t actually providing the technicians any actual walkthrough through the materials. They would just give workers handouts and say, hey, memorize these answers and  we’re going to take you for the tests. And that was what they were doing to a lot of the students. When you think about that, and then when we started working as the school and we said, hey, there’s their testing sites here in the city, that’s when all the stories are starting to come out about how these predatory schools what they were doing with the industry. So whether it’s scams like that, the technicians not receiving that actual educational material, you start to think about the effect not only on the workers, but you really think about the ripple effect with customers and what that means in terms of safety across the board.

JAIME: To integrate these workers into the system, I know that the governor actually approved a system by which they’re able to obtain an apprentice training license. So they’re allowed to work and go to school, is that correct? And then take their license, and when they pass, they get a license, the New York nail specialty license, that’s just like if you had gone to school from the beginning, is that correct? 

LUIS: One of many changes that the governor implemented, but something that really shined through, was the access to licensing, the expansion of the languages that the tests were being done, and the creation of the apprentice program in nails. In New York City, the only system that existed was a system of having to take classes for about 250 hours. That was cut down to 26 hours, but you had to be under the tutelage of somebody with a nail technician’s license for a year. Once you passed that 12 months of being under the tutelage of somebody, you’d be able to then get your nail technician’s license. That really opened up the door for thousands of workers to be able to have access to licensing and provided us the opportunity to not only provide that service, but also step into a void of making sure workers were getting the proper hands on training as well.

JAIME: How does your school compare in terms of pass rates to other programs that are offering the 250 hours?

LUIS: After our second year of running, the department of state, one of the reps told us that we had the highest pass rate amongst the schools in New York. Even though we’re required only 26 hours, our classes run about 35 hours where we maximize the time that we have to approach the materials. It’s more like a participatory education style, so it’s not just having an instructor at the front of the class and the students just listening. We’ve taken the curriculum and we’ve made it into a popular education style where workers are working in groups. Workers have homework. They have group homework as well. They use activities and games to teach the materials. So our pass rate that we have in our school is in the mid-nineties. It’s something we’re really proud of as, not only the association, but our partnership with NYCOSH.

ASHLEY: Switching gears ever so slightly, in your experience dealing with and working closely with nail technicians in New York and New Jersey, how do instances of wage theft compare to the frequency of employment misclassification?

LUIS: I think you’re asking two very, very tough questions in regards to our efforts in combating them. The one thing that has been consistent in our work over the past couple of years is hearing about the amount of wage theft that exists in this industry. We recently came out with a report that spoke about the cases of wage theft that we still see and 80% of the people that we interviewed are dealing with cases of wage theft. You have to start digging deeper in terms of trying to figure out what is constituting wage theft. New York state still has workers that are considered tipped workers. You have workers that legally are allowed to be paid below the minimum wage because, in theory, the tips are supposed to cover the rest of the wages, and if they don’t, the owners of the salons are supposed to cover the missing wages that don’t reach that minimum wage threshold. 

ASHLEY: Right.

LUIS: We were seeing wage theft on a couple of different sides of that system. There was a huge number of workers that were experiencing wage theft in regards to not even earning the sub-minimum wage. Workers weren’t even receiving that proper amount. When you calculate all wages and hours and tips at the end of the week, that was another threshold that workers weren’t reaching. So you’re having this system that really allowed wage theft to happen on a multiple sides of the wage system. We have workers that have been working in New York in this industry for 20 years that tell us, this is how I’ve been paid for all these 20 years, like the system. And there’s a couple of different systems that exist that are really prominent. I will say that there is this caveat of boutique salons versus the other salons. Like I said, there’s over 4,000 salons in New York City, and the overwhelming majority are not these high-end salons, the really recognized salons that charge a lot and there’s a lot of expectations from customers in terms of what they’re walking into. The majority of the salons are not those high-end salons. The majority of the workers are dealing with these wage issues that breaks down in a couple different ways. Workers have been told that because they are tipped workers, they are their own bosses, and by being their own bosses, the wages that they earn are wages that they themselves have to fight for and they’re given this framework that they are independent contractors.

ASHLEY: I was just going to ask if this was an independent contractor situation.

LUIS: Exactly. Right, so they are provided this sort of like framing of you’re not an hourly worker, therefore you are this other worker and that other worker, they’re being told is being an independent contractor. Even though, none of the workers set their own prices. None of the workers set their hours. None of the workers actually collect the monies. Workers don’t have access to the salons outside of the owners or managers giving them access to the salon. It’s obvious that these workers are not independent contractors, right? The workers are being told they’re independent contractors. So workers are given a day rate. They’re told, hey, we’re going to pay you $80 for the day, and then you have to make the rest up yourself. There’s lots of workers that are paid under that system. The other system that workers are paid are in commission. Workers are told, hey, I’m going to give you 60% of the price. Unfortunately, in New York City, you have the lowest price of a manicure in all of the United States. In 2013, you are seeing prices around $7 for a regular manicure. You fast forward to 2019, 2020, when we did the survey, you were still seeing $7 as the low spectrum of it. The highest spectrum you would see is about 11 and some change. For New York City to be one of the most expensive places to live, the most expensive places to do business, yet it’s the cheapest place to do a manicure. It gives you pause to think about who’s getting the short end of the stick in this situation. History has shown that it’s always been on the back of workers. It is a really complex situation.

JAIME: We’re here for the deep dive, Luis. That’s why we love having you as a guest. This is incredible information and detail that really challenges the way that we think about our work and the value of it, relative to what consumers expect of us. Let me ask you this. In developing education for nail professionals in your region, did you have a difficult time convincing them that these were their rights, or did they feel somehow that perhaps their immigration status or their lack of a license somehow made them ineligible for the things that they were entitled to, like their minimum wage, meal and rest periods, paid sick leave, having their taxes paid, all the things that we know that should have been happening all along?

LUIS: Yeah, I mean, as we go through these different know your rights workshops, workers always say, but this is how it’s always been. Yeah, we hear you about the minimum wage, and yeah, we know this is, but this is how it’s always been. Or things aren’t going to change. We don’t see, inspectors show up. It’s tough because we’re fighting a lot of institutionalized and ingrained framing of what people’s rights are if they have any rights at all. You mentioned lunch breaks. Something as simple as a 30 minute lunch break. You’ll hear more stories of workers saying that they eat in a quick burst of like five minutes, seven minutes, because another customer came in. You might not think that’s a big issue, but you start thinking about that workers, their average shift is 10 hours in the salon. What that means working with the chemicals. What that means working under stress. What that means not having a 30 minute lunch break. And so how do we connect what their legal rights are to things that they are seeing day to day. And that’s been a lot of the work. How do we connect these different issues that really start to help workers have a really comprehensive understanding. There’s a reason why these laws exist to prevent things that you’re seeing within yourself, within your other coworkers, within the rest of the nail community. I think one of the realities of the nail industry that of immigration, and the mixed immigration statuses that exist in this industry. And how that affects workers in the sense of feeling empowered to say, I’m going to file a complaint to the DOL. That’s a big hurdle because it is one of those industries where we do see a lot of newly arrived immigrants be part of, and you see the ripple effects now that COVID-19 has hit, and the effects on the communities, the effects on families. Salons are shut down. The rights that workers would expect to see, whether it’s unemployment, or other relief efforts, the stimulus checks, those are things that lots of workers aren’t receiving, don’t have access to because of the mixed immigration statuses. It’s having a huge, huge, huge impact on not only them as workers, their families, and communities as a whole. And I think that is one of the unfortunate pieces that us as an association and as the union are really trying to see how we can support workers through. 

JAIME: With New York city being the epicenter of the pandemic exposing all the weaknesses in our industry, especially for the most vulnerable workers. Taking a step back before this happened, what was the response of salons and clients when workers were asserting their rights? When they did learn what their rights were and were going to salon owners and saying, hey, I know better now.

LUIS: It’s really a mixed bag where I think there’s a lot of understanding around labor, an understanding that workers are dealing with long hours, not enough breaks, the wages, right?   There’s an easier understanding around those issues from progressive folks. On occasion you have people that say, hey, why don’t you get this other job? Why don’t you look for a better job? That’s not the response either. The workers will tell you, first and foremost, they love their job. They’re like we don’t want to do something else. Always fascinating for me to see workers push back against those questions and seeing the reactions from other people because it’s like the workers will tell you, they love making people feel special and happy after getting their nails done. There’s tons of pride in the work that they do, but it’s the conditions around that work that  they’re looking to change, and there’s the consumer education piece. There’s the worker education piece. There’s the owner responsible to make sure that workers and customers are being protected. That’s just the responsibility as the owner. We have this piece of legislation  we’re proposing in New York state called the Nail Salon Accountability Act, and one of the core pieces is mandatory training. That mandatory training is for workers and owners, because if the owners of the salons also don’t have that education and that training around health and safety, there will always be this gap. There’s no longer an excuse to say you did not know.

ASHLEY: Well, and you’re only as strong as your weakest link. And if there’s a salon owner who doesn’t quite know what exactly is correct and you’re holding them accountable and they’re responsible for everyone under their purview, it is very difficult to learn your rights and then have to teach your boss how to do the right thing. And so I really want to ask you about knowing now it with COVID-19 and this new found awareness on behalf of the client or the consumer of what does infection, in general, looks like. Do you plan to take advantage of that new found awareness to create some policy change?

LUIS: That’s exactly what it is that we are thinking through, right now. We’ve always been asking for N95 masks for workers and those are the masks that are being used by everybody, right? Like the medical professionals and the first responders are using. But those are going to be the same mass that workers need when they get back to work. And so on one end, it’s about the access to the PPE. On the other end, it’s the conversations around the mandatory trainings. I think the governor was talking a couple of days ago about the possibilities of opening up, or the lack of possibilities of opening up anytime soon, but definitely he does not see how people can be properly social distancing in the tattoo shop, or as a barber. And we’re talking about New York city, the epicenter of COVID-19. And when we talk about a salon, we are really planning on pushing the conversations with the state around the safety of workers, and what’s going to be needed. And so there’s a lot of work already being done with different coalitions, but then we also have to think about what does it start to look like as we start opening up the economy and salons start to opening up. That’s a real conversation that we’re going to be having around nail salons but, as a union, we are already involved because as a union, we have essential workers that are already working. Those exact conversations that we’re having now around our essential workers are conversations that we’ll be pivoting for the nail technicians

JAIME: Has the governor’s office reached out to your organization to get input on what going back to work looks like?

LUIS: No, their office hasn’t, but I don’t doubt that they will. As an organization, we’ve had open communication with the governor’s office and so we expect the same thing as those efforts of reopening and those conversations around reopening begin.

ASHLEY: As we all navigate in this industry through, and I hate to say this cause it’s so overused but, these uncertain times, how do you facilitate that conversation with your members and what can someone take away from that and apply to their own situation?

LUIS: Some of the work we are starting to do now is starting those conversations about how is it that we want to see the industry when it does come back. It’s not an easy transition because workers are consistently dealing with the issues that are coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic. But those are the conversations that we have to start having where workers can’t be so grateful to go back to work that they will accept whatever conditions that are given to them to work under. How do we start talking about what is it that workers want to see when they get back? How can this really be an opportunity to press reset?  

ASHLEY: I think it’s very interesting too to point out that the work that you’re doing benefits an entire industry in your region, whether they’re members of your association or not.

JAIME: In terms of support, I know that your organization launched a resiliency fund. What can you tell us about that?

LUIS: As part of the ongoing efforts, in terms of filling in those gaps that have been so brought to light around workers in this industry, we set up the nail salon worker resilience fund, which is a program where we can collect donations, crowdsource donations, and that money we distribute directly to workers. So it’s direct cash assistance to workers. If you want to go online, you can go to and immediately you’ll have the information on the resilience fund and the link to our ActBlue account. We have an application system where we’ve shared the application. Workers fill out the application. Workers are able to tell us how much they would want from that scale, and then we have different ways of directly distributing those donations directly to workers. As the fund continues to grow and we get more support, we continue to expand the amount of workers and their families that we’re able to support. 

ASHLEY: As far as the role of the client in all of this, what do you want consumers to know or look for before they choose a salon? Once we’re all opened again and things are back to our new normal.

LUIS: In the perfect world, I feel like we’d have a system where customers would be able to see   where owners are participating in a high-road program, if you will. Where it’s certified by us, the union or the association, that workers are being paid fairly, that workers are receiving the proper breaks, and that they’re given the proper personal protective equipment. But until then, I think customers should really be thinking about the health and safety of not only themselves, but of their nail technicians, the ones that are helping them glow during this time. We really need to have a collective approach around health and safety. As we always tell folks, we like to suggest that they always tip their nail technicians in cash making sure that they have it. In New York City, the 20% is usually not enough, especially when you consider the low prices that exist. Sometimes 20% on a 10 or $15 job, because you went on a Wednesday and got a special, it’s not enough. I think there’s a more collective approach around health and safety, the protection of everybody, and making sure that folks take care of their workers.  

JAIME: How do we keep that conversation going particularly in the legislature? My concern for you and for every state is that any of these issues that seem so important before this happened are going to take a back seat to issues around the economy and something like the Nail Salon Accountability Act won’t get the attention it deserves.

LUIS: I think this goes back to a question about how do we pivot? How do we use this moment, right? Because part of the Nail Salon Accountability Act isn’t saying, hey, we want higher wages. It’s how do we protect the wages that workers are supposed to be earning now. It requires health and safety training which I think is crucial at this moment right now, and so I think that’s a big piece of it. We are really going to have to pivot this work into helping folks understand that we’re not asking for anything more other than how do we protect what workers are supposed to be having, as well as how do we make sure that all workers are trained?   

JAIME: We all share that same work, Luis, and I want to thank you so much for explaining in such detail what’s happening in New York and for those of us who don’t live there and don’t have the experience of living and working in a city that has so many people in it, has so many beauty salons, nail salons and workers in that kind of environment. I think it’s hard to imagine, and I think you’ve really brought it home for those of us who are not in that situation. So I want to thank you for all the information. In fact, our show notes are going to have links to all the different resources that you’ve mentioned. We’re going to have links to the Nail Salon Accountability Act, which might be a model for other states. In addition to your report, which I have to say at 12 pages is a really quick and informative read that I think all beauty professionals should review if you want to understand just how much worker exploitation impacts wages and workers. So again, thank you so much, Luis.

LUIS: Jaime, thank you so much. Ashley, thank you so much. It’s always great to be able to share stories and our experiences in the industry  

ASHLEY: Yes, thank you. This was very enlightening and I have hope that you’ll be open to coming back as we navigate this new frontier of the industry and help us dissect it.

LUIS: Yeah, for sure. Anytime. 

ASHLEY:  Leave us a review on your favorite podcast platform and we might read your review on the podcast. As always, you can follow us and comment on recent episodes on Instagram at @outgrowthpodcast.

JAIME: Subscribe, rate, and review Outgrowth on your favorite podcast platform.  It helps us reach more listeners like you. Stay safe out there.

ASHLEY: See you next Monday.

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