New York Governor Andrew Cuomo on Monday announced the creation a task force focused on righting the wrongs inflicted on workers at the thousands of nail salons in the tri-state area.
The announcement came after a New York Times story last week explored the exploitation of and health risks for nail salon technicians, an occupation largely held by immigrant workers.
The New York nail salon task force will recoup lost wages for nail salon employees, enforce stricter workplace safety regulations, and revoke the licenses of salons that are not in compliance, according to Cuomo’s announcement.
There is no such task force in Massachusetts, but several state and local agencies play a role in safeguarding nail salon workers and clients. It’s a simpler task to regulate Boston than it is New York because the market here is smaller, said Tony Pino, business development officer at the salon chain Miniluxe, which prides itself in offering employees a living wage, subsidized medical and dental insurance, and paid time off.
“Some of the systemic things that enable it to be so bad in New York don’t happen here,” he said.
Still, the limited number of inspectors covering thousands of nail salons statewide means enforcement of salon regulations is a challenge, Pino said.
To paint nails in Massachusetts, technicians must be licensed by the Board of Registration of Cosmetology and Barbering. If they are not, they risk a $1,000 fine for the first violation and more for subsequent violations.
The board makes unannounced visits to the salons and investigates allegations of unlicensed practitioners. In fiscal year 2014, it had 9,143 inspections, opened 248 complaints, and issued 147 disciplinary actions against both licensed and unlicensed individuals working in cosmetology, according to the Department of Professional Licensing.
Beyond licensing, the department cooperates with the attorney general’s Fair Labor Division to enforce pay or work exploitation claims. It also works with local health boards to enforce safety and environmental health issues.
Nail salons must have adequate light, ventilation, and safe equipment, according to the professional licensing development. But other specifications are determined locally.
Boston, for example, passed new regulations in 2013 to increase ventilation requirements in the city’s 196 permitted salons. Now, nail salons must have mechanical ventilation systems and/or built-in ventilation at nail tables.
The Boston Public Health Commission, which regulates nail salons in the city, has also established required practices for tool sterilization and equipment cleaning.
The commission launched the “Green & Clean” program to encourage salons to go beyond the mandatory requirements. Green & Clean salons follow strict sterilizations practices, use environmentally friendly products and recyclable materials, and conserve heat, light, and water. In exchange, they receive signs and positive word of mouth from the commission. According to the Green & Clean’s website, 34 Boston nail salons participated in the program.
Since these changes, environmental health conditions have improved in Boston-area salons. A 2013 Brandeis University survey of air quality in Boston-area nail salons found that in four of a sample of 15 salons the carbon dioxide levels exceeded the guideline concentration, which indicates insufficient ventilation. Two years prior, researchers found elevated levels in 15 of the 21 surveyed salons.
Whether salongoers are getting their nails done in Massachusetts or New York, Pino said he believes the key to ending the most dangerous and wrongful of these practices is client awareness. As with food, many clients are likely to pay a little more for a clean, ethical nail salon experience, Pino said.
“The sad thing here is that you’re not talking about livestock or vegetables. You’re talking about people and their health,” Pino said.