When Your Job Is to Touch People’s Hands

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As more New Yorkers stay home out of fear of getting sick, the city’s roughly 4,000 nail salons are either bracing for impact or feeling it already. The outbreak and resulting decline in customers is particularly troubling for nail technicians. While some salons offer paid sick leave, many don’t, according to a recent report by the New York Nail Salon Workers Association. Roughly a quarter of these workers are paid on commission, making them reliant on the number of clients who come in; half are paid an hourly or day rate, which can be slashed as some salons cut back hours due to reduced demand. With the average cost of a manicure in New York City hovering around $11, and health insurance a rare benefit in the industry, the financial and health risks are major concerns.

“Typically, this is a slow season regardless, but with this situation with the coronavirus, the salons are practically empty,” says Araceli, a nail technician at salons in midtown Manhattan and the Bronx. She normally sees anywhere from 10 to 15 clients a day, but this week, “I’m doing an average between 3 and 6 clients a day,” she says. A single mother of two, Araceli aims to make $400 a week — which is impossible right now. Fewer clients means fewer tips, and with business being so slow, she says the owner of one of the salons where she works has been closing up early.

At the salons where she works, Araceli is provided a mask but not gloves. If she gets sick, she has little protection. Her insurance, which she pays for out of pocket through the state marketplace, only covers emergencies, and she does not have paid sick leave, despite a New York City law requiring businesses with five or more employees to provide it. Araceli says she is allowed to ask clients to wash their hands before a manicure, and if not, she can suggest they use hand sanitizer. But as the virus spreads, that doesn’t feel like enough.

Conditions are better at some high-end salons, but those are largely the exception. Tenoverten, a small chain of modern, nontoxic salons with multiple Manhattan locations, has advised its nail technicians to keep a mask and gloves on during the entire manicure — normally, a mask is only required during filing — and then throw them away immediately after each session. (Masks and gloves are provided.) Metal tools are cleaned in an autoclave, a device that kills bacteria and viruses, and housekeepers clean out in the open to assure both clients and employees.

Tenoverten co-founder Nadine Abramcyk says the company provides paid sick leave to all of its roughly 200 employees, and guarantees full-time staff a 40-hours-a-week schedule. The company has also communicated to employees that if a client appears sick, they can alert a manager. “Typically, the manager can find the right language to talk to that person and figure out what’s going on, and ask, ‘Can we offer you some Kleenex?’ ‘How are you feeling?’ to sort of smooth it over and give the person an opportunity to read into the fact that it might not be the best idea,” says Abramcyk.

So far, Abramcyk says the only dip in customers has been among older clientele, and for group events. “People are still booking, but they are very wary of our cancellation policy.” An unexpected boost: On the Monday after a state of emergency was declared in New York, online sales of the company’s nail polishes and products doubled. (Good for business, but not necessarily for workers who rely on tips.)

Rita de Alencar Pinto, founder of Vanity Projects, an upscale nail salon on the Lower East Side with 126,000 Instagram followers, says she’s been struggling to fill normally sought-after appointments in the midst of the pandemic. “I have never seen availabilities the way I have right now,” she says. Even with increased precautions — hand sanitizer at every station, a cleaning crew working five days a week instead of the usual three — some clients are steering clear. She’s now offering monthly and weekly discounts to try to get more clients through the door.

Eighty percent of New York City’s nail-salon workers are immigrant women, and Pinto says that at her salon, where specialized manicures can cost over $200, one client canceled over “that xenophobic, weird panicky stuff” because the manicurist was of Asian descent. “I don’t put up with anything pretty much, I protect my artists 150 percent,” says Pinto. “If a client is taking precautionary measures for themselves and their safety, they also have to know we are also taking them for our artists as well.” Jessica Austin, general manager for Primp & Polish in Brooklyn, says many of the company’s nail technicians are Chinese, and a few customers have called with concerns. “Their questions have been, how are we handling any of our staff members who may be showing they are sick, and are we knowledgeable of anyone who has been traveling internationally?” she says. “We can easily handle those questions.”

The bigger, more difficult questions, perhaps, are left for nail technicians like Araceli, who don’t have the pay and benefits provided by many of the pricier salons. As news reports about coronavirus become increasingly alarming, Araceli is worried. “How am I going to pay rent? How am I going to pay for food? How am I going to pay for the electricity bill that I have?” she says. “I am carrying that stress.”

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When Your Job Is to Touch People’s Hands