In the U.S. in early 2020, the looming threat of the pandemic still felt new and uncertain. A dearth of understanding and lack of guidance at the state or federal level on the best way to combat the virus meant that millions of people were still clocking in to work each day for weeks after COVID-19 was discovered — and that even after some industries went on lockdown or went remote, millions of workers were still compelled to continue doing so throughout the entirety of the pandemic. In the spring and summer of 2020, salons across the country changed operating procedures or closed altogether to accommodate for mandates in their region.
By March 20, the order had come down for countless small businesses in four states — New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania — to close up shop. Among them were New York City's more than 4,000 nail salons, the vast majority of which are staffed by immigrant women of color. During that uneasy in-between period, Maria Lopez*, a 30-year-old native of Ecuador who now lives in Queens, had her brush with COVID-19. "In late February of 2020 I got sick at the nail salon I worked at," she tells Allure. During this time, one of the clients she saw included a doctor who was working at a busy hospital in the tri-state area. While COVID-19 typically takes 2 to 14 days for symptoms to manifest, she tells Allure that she began to notice her own symptoms later in the day.
Her boss was unmoved by her plight; according to Lopez, her employer did not provide her or the other workers with PPE and charged them $15 a pop for protective face visors. "It didn't matter to her," she said. "We had to buy our own masks, gloves, and everything… and we were told we didn't need to wear them when there weren’t clients."
After she tested positive for COVID-19, Lopez left her job at the salon (which soon closed during the pandemic lockdown anyway) and began working at a friend's produce delivery business to make ends meet. As many nail salons have closed during the pandemic there were few options available to newly unemployed nail salon workers, more than 80 percent of whom are cut out of federal aid like unemployment insurance or stimulus checks due to their immigration status, according to a March report from the New York Nail Salon Workers Association (NYNSWA). In April, a year after the order came to shut down the salons, New York state lawmakers would approve the $2.1 billion Excluded Workers Fund, an emergency measure to provide relief to the estimated 300,000 immigrant workers and other workers with nontraditional jobs who had been excluded from government aid programs, but there was nothing like that on the books when the salons first closed, and workers still had bills to pay.
After her workplace shut down, Mariwvey Ramirez, a single mother and 20-year veteran of the nail salon industry who is originally from Mexico, tried her hand at street vending. She sold fruit on the sidewalk for months until her salon hired her back — at reduced hours. "Other nail techs went into cleaning or construction," she tells Allure in Spanish via a translator. "We were practically earning nothing. It's not a real job, everything was closed for March, April, June… In my building, we went on rent strike, which we are still on to this day."
"They had their livelihood cut off from one day to the next."
Lopez and Ramirez were not the first nor the last nail salon workers to be impacted by the pandemic. Their entire industry has been decimated, and a recent report from NYNSWA further outlines the heavy human toll that the pandemic has taken on the nail salon worker community. Published on March 22, 2021, the report found that, in a February 2021 survey of 645 nail salon workers, 29 percent said that they had tested positive for COVID, and an additional 9 percent said that they believe they had contracted the virus at some point but were unable to get a test at the time of their illness. In addition, despite the in-person nature of their job, nail salon workers were not given any kind of early access to the vaccine, and many of them live in the very neighborhoods where the virus raged hardest. Ramirez, an NYNSWA member, said she knew of at least two coworkers who had contracted the virus; one of them died, leaving behind four children.
An Emergency for Everyone
"This year has been incredibly challenging for everyone, [and] in speaking with our members it just becomes so clear how already existing inequalities based on class, race, gender, and immigration status have gotten much deeper," Luis Gomez, Organizing Director of the New York-New Jersey Regional Joint Board, Workers United, Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the union home of the NYNSWA, tells Allure. "Our membership is largely undocumented; 80 percent were not eligible for any kind of federal assistance. They had their livelihood cut off from one day to the next. They were getting in line at the food bank, using what little savings they had to buy rice and dried beans in bulk, asking the church for assistance to buy necessary medicines and going on rent strike out of sheer necessity."
"There are many components of trauma that we are looking at when we consider what an [undocumented] immigrant has experienced and is currently experiencing," Laura L. Raucci, a clinical social worker based in New Jersey, tells Allure. "Staying 'under the radar' and contained, so that attention is not paid to one that is dangerous, due to illegal immigrant status. This trauma impacts not only the women who are employed in the nail salons; it applies to their children, as well. This fear of attention allows for abuses to occur, whether they be low wages and long hours, working outside of a job description, such as cleaning premises when employed as a manicurist."
"When I finally was able to go back to looking for work, I found work at two different salons because the hours were not enough and the money wasn't enough."
Laxmi Yadav*, a Nepali nail salon technician and member of Adhikaar, a New York-based non-profit that organizes for human rights and social justice causes in the Nepali-speaking community, characterized the situation as "an emergency for everyone." (Adhikaar, the NYNSWA, the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health, and the NY-NJ Regional Joint Board, Workers United, make up the New York Healthy Nail Salons Coalition, which advocates for workers and worker-friendly policy bills like the Nail Salon Accountability Act and the recently-passed NY HERO Act). She was able to get unemployment and her husband, a warehouse worker, continued to go to work, but their family struggled as the pandemic worsened.
"There was fear that he would get sick on the job, but he had to continue working to support our family," she tells Allure. "I couldn't immediately find other work because we were afraid of even going outside, I heard sirens all the time. When I finally was able to go back to looking for work, I found work at two different salons because the hours were not enough and the money wasn't enough. One of the salons then quickly shut down because of slow business. I love working in nails, so I don't want to leave and I'm proud of being a technician, but it's hard to continue due to what is happening now."
The labor that these workers perform is by necessity in-person, up-close, and, yes, very personal; there is no remote option for a manicure, and once the salons re-opened in July, some of the customers who did return became a problem. Several of the people interviewed for this piece spoke about customers who refused to wear masks, became irate at waiting their turn in reduced-capacity establishments or denied the existence of the virus altogether. "Some are very conscientious, [but] others don't even want their temperature taken," Lopez, who is also a NYNSWA member, says. "It affected me a lot. I didn't so much worry for myself but I worried for my kids. If I were to get sick, what would happen to them?"
"Trauma causes one to enter into the fight, flight, or freeze mode," Raucci explains. "When this happens, the part of the brain — the prefrontal cortex — that houses logical reasoning goes 'offline,' and one cannot be in fight, flight, or freeze mode and have access to logical reasoning at the same time. It is not possible. This fear of not knowing is the state within which these women are living. Perhaps they are in fight, flight, or freeze mode most, if not all, of the time."
Nail salon workers have had to deal with the mental and emotional impact of working through a pandemic in addition to the physical danger of potential exposure, and it has not been easy. "It has taken a huge toll," says Gomez. "Many nail salon workers are still out of work, either because their salons have closed, they no longer have childcare, or don't feel safe returning to work. We don't know how long this situation will go on for. The pandemic has exposed just how fragile the system is."
"It's a lot; sometimes you feel the immense stress of having to deal with all of this, like a big pressure in the head," explains Ramirez. "But at the end of the day we need those clients, we work for tips, and it's very hard to assert that they follow the rules. It's a loss for us. What are we supposed to do? I have a family I need to support."
"It is essential to think about what trauma actually does to the mind, body, soul," says Raucci. "After all, we as humans are integrated beings; what affects one's mind affects one's body and soul, as well… Mental and emotional stress will indeed affect the body. Research shows the correlation between trauma and many chronic physical conditions."
Getting Back to Work
In spite of the continued risk, the salons and the workers themselves are eager to continue doing the work to which they're accustomed and that some of them even love, especially as vaccination rates climbed and vaccine eligibility is opening up in many states; in fact, everyone above the age of 16 is eligible in New York and New Jersey, which includes all the workers Allure spoke to for this piece. For the past year, the sight of empty salons has weighed heavily on those who depend on them for their livelihood, and nail salon workers are ready to welcome back their customers with open arms — provided they’re properly masked and respect safety rules.
"We still depend on tips, so with no customers, having no tips is hard — even if the minimum wage is now $15 [in parts of New York], commission has been cut and employers find ways to cut hours," Yadav explains. "How am I supposed to take care of my family or even look for other work if the few hours I get at the current salon I work at are not stable? It was hard [before the pandemic] to earn a living, but at least we made it work with business being busy."
"You should go back to salons, and continue to support us and our industry," she adds. "The industry is not dead, and instead of being fearful, we want to welcome clients."
*Names have been changed.
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