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Economy & Labor , US

‘I’m So Scared’: California Nail Salon Workers Face Ruin as Pandemic Wears On

by Erica Hellerstein September 19, 2020

This article was published in partnership with The San Francisco Chronicle

When the coronavirus forced the closure of the nail salon where Tracy Tran works in Los Gatos, she was immediately robbed of two things she held dear: work and sleep.

Ever since arriving in the United States from Vietnam 13 years ago, Tran, 39, has been doing nails. But she and her husband were forced to temporarily close their family business, La Orquidea Salon and Spa, in March because of coronavirus restrictions — leading her to depression and insomnia.

This month, as Santa Clara County moved to a less restrictive tier in the state’s coronavirus reopening system, La Orquidea reopened indoors at a reduced capacity. But Tran still wakes up in the middle of the night with her mind racing.

“I’m scared,” she says. “If it stays like (this), we may have to close the shop.”

A new wave of problems

The coronavirus pandemic is devastating the multibillion-dollar nail industry in California, affecting the livelihoods of tens of thousands of mostly minority women. Tran is from an especially hard-hit group: According to the UCLA Labor Center, nearly 3 out of 4 nail salon workers in California are of Vietnamese descent.

Tran says she feels a proverbial whiplash, with the state’s reopening requirements for counties dependent on the latest numbers of coronavirus cases. La Orquidea first closed in mid-March under California’s shelter-in-place order. Salons in some counties were allowed to reopen in June, but in Santa Clara, salons didn’t get the green light until July. But even this brought little relief: Two days after the salon reopened, it shut again after a new state order halted indoor operations in counties on California’s coronavirus monitoring list.

In September, under the state’s tiered reopening plan, nail salons in approximately half of Bay Area counties, including Santa Clara, are allowed to reopen indoors at reduced capacity. In the other counties, salons are only permitted to operate outdoors — if salon workers and customers want to brave wildfire smoke. San Francisco just permitted salons to open indoors starting last Monday.

Right now I don’t have a job, and I don’t have enough money to pay for the rent. I miss customers, I miss working, I need money. I’m so scared.

Lan Anh Truong, a nail salon owner in Alameda

Nails are big business in California. The industry is worth about $3 billion in the state, according to the Pro Nails Association, and is fueled by cheap labor. Manicurists earn a median annual salary of $17,000, according to the Insight Center for Community Economic Development, a research and advocacy organization. California has 100,000 licensed manicurists, more than any other state.

“This has always been a low-wage, economically insecure workforce,” says Assemblyman David Chiu, D-San Francisco, chair of the Asian and Pacific Islander Legislative Caucus.

In addition to the concentration of Vietnamese, nearly 90% of the state’s nail salon workers are women, according to an analysis of U.S. census data by the Insight Center for Community Economic Development.

“COVID and the recession have only accelerated the downward spiral (for) these folks. It has been incredibly difficult for them,” Chiu says. One salon worker attempted suicide after a month of unemployment, said Tam Nguyen, president of Advance Beauty College in Orange County and co-founder of the philanthropic advocacy group Nailing It for America.

Nguyen estimates that 30% to 40% of nail salons across California could permanently close. In May, relatively early in the pandemic, the industry faced an extra challenge when Gov. Gavin Newsom said the first community spread of the coronavirus occurred in a nail salon — a claim that seemed questionable and that he never elaborated on.

Some of the salons unable to reopen indoors have gone rogue, says Dung Nguyen, program and outreach coordinator for the California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative, a statewide advocacy group. They are keeping things running by pulling the blinds down or stealthily providing manicures and pedicures in clients’ homes.

“They tell me, ‘I know what I’m doing is not right, but what do you expect me to do? I need to do what I can to support my family,’” she says.

Hundreds of manicurists polled this spring as the pandemic shuttered their businesses said they were unsure they would be able to afford food and other basic necessities in the next month, according to a survey by the UCLA Labor Center and the California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative. One-third of nail salon owners said they were unable to afford rent.

Increasing debt

Lan Anh Truong, a nail salon owner in Alameda, is anxiously watching the bills pile up. A veteran manicurist who has worked at her salon for 25 years, she has been without a job since mid-March. Salons in Alameda County are not allowed to open indoors, and Truong is still responsible for her salon’s rent and utilities, which reach $3,000 each month. She doesn’t know whether she will be able to make her next payment. Her loan from the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program doesn’t go far enough to cover all of her expenses (she declined to disclose the loan amount). Although her salon has been closed for months, she still stops by to water her plants and collect mail.

“I’m suffering,” she says. “Right now I don’t have a job, and I don’t have enough money to pay for the rent. I miss customers, I miss working, I need money. I’m so scared.”

In Los Gatos, Tran’s customers celebrated the salon’s reopening with fresh flowers and a flood of congratulatory calls and text messages (along with the requisite masks, temperature checks and sanitization). She felt her spirits lift after a few days of work, recalling an elderly client with a foot condition who gushed that her long-awaited pedicure felt like “paradise.”

“We wanted to give each other a hug but could not, only a virtual one,” Tran says, laughing.

Still, Tran can’t help but feel uncertain about the salon’s — and her family’s — fate. Business is slow — about 25% of capacity, with all appointments scheduled ahead of time — as customers appear cautious to return indoors, she says. Also, the cost of supplies like rubbing alcohol and gloves has significantly increased in recent months, she says. If the county is unable to move into a more lenient tier soon that will allow them to serve more clients indoors, she worries the salon will not be able to hang on.

“At least everybody can be back to work and we can pick up little by little,” she says. “I do hope that we can move into a better situation in a couple weeks.”

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