Massaging hands, painting nails, clipping cuticles, waxing legs, extending lashes, exfoliating skin — the work is exceptionally intimate. Few industries put paying client and low-wage worker in physical contact like nail salons and spas.
Businesses selling beauty and relaxation often illegally underpay their workers, many of whom are immigrants. But state enforcement officials only address what is believed to be a small number of the labor abuses in this industry.
Since 2015, 91 Connecticut nail salons and spas have been ordered to close temporarily by the state Department of Labor for violations in how they pay their employees, DOL enforcement data obtained by Hearst Connecticut Media shows.
Every one of these businesses paid their employees in cash, without withholding taxes, and they all lacked proper workers’ compensation coverage, state records show. None kept payroll records.
While some salons and spas treat workers well, people working in and studying the industry say the state’s 91 stop-work orders may reflect just a tiny fraction of the labor violations occurring in nail salons and spas around the state. The issue is literally at customers’ fingertips, but often goes unseen.
“I bring a lot of cases against employers for violating basic labor standards,” said James Bhandary-Alexander, a staff attorney at New Haven Legal Assistance. “Nails salons are notoriously not meeting those basic standards.”
Top officials at the state Department of Labor defend their work at a time of staff cutbacks, saying they’re reaching out to educate the industry — much of which is run by immigrants, especially from Asia. Still, the limited enforcement, paired with a lack of licensing requirements for workers, means Connecticut nail salons and spas could be the least regulated in the nation.
Connecticut is the only state that does not license nail technicians and estheticians, according to the Professional Beauty Association.
And it may get worse, even as many customers remain unaware of the violations.
With nail technicians and skin specialists targeted for faster than average job growth, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics, the problem of labor violations — along with other issues at the spas — may balloon, too.
Rampant is the exploitation of people — almost all women — who spend their days hunched over fingers and toes, massaging, painting and scrubbing, a May 2015 New York Times investigation found. The Times uncovered workers in the tri-state area who were regularly paid below minimum wage and sometimes were not paid at all.
As in other low-wage jobs, many of the workers were undocumented immigrants and spoke English poorly, if at all, making them vulnerable to exploitation. And meager enforcement of labor laws meant employers typically got away with it.
The Times’ findings prompted the Department of Labor to conduct its first ever systematic investigation of wage violations in the nail and beauty business in August 2015.
DOL visited 25 randomly chosen salons and day spas, including some in Stamford, Darien, Westport, Southport, Greenwich and New Haven. DOL found serious wage violations at 23 of them — a 92 percent failure rate.
But the state has not conducted another nail and spa sweep. Instead, DOL has investigated complaints from employees or the public, issuing 66 stop-work orders to nail salons and spas after August 2015.
Including the first sweep, DOL has inspected 142 nail salons and spas, following 239 claims from August 2015 to Jan. 24. By comparison, New York’s labor department inspected 395 salons during sweeps in 2015 alone, the Times reported.
“Over time, with staff reductions, we have become a bit more reactive than proactive,” said Thomas Wydra, director of the Wage and Workplace Standards Division at DOL. “That is somewhat regrettable. But we have to investigate the claims we receive first and foremost.”
In Connecticut, most businesses ordered to stop work resolved their infractions in a matter of days and re-opened. Some shut down permanently. Some are repeat offenders.
Nine of the sanctioned salons and spas were in Milford, four in Wilton, three in Orange, two in Greenwich and one in Stamford.
Connecticut’s DOL needs to “take more initiative instead of waiting,” said Julia Trigila, owner of Scarlett’s Lash Boutique and Spa in Newington and lobbyist for the Connecticut Coalition of Esthetics. “There could be so many people who are being mistreated, and they will never find out about it.”
Miliann Kang, a sociologist and professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, has conducted research at over 30 Asian-owned salons in New York since the 1990s. Although she has not done research in Connecticut, she has found a “huge range” of worker experiences, she said.
“I saw some workers who are treated very well,” Kang said. “Just like any small business, a lot depends on the business owner, but also the situation of the salon. If the salon is doing well, it’s in a good location, if it has clientele that is willing to pay a fair wage and tips well — all of that is what needs to be in place for it to be a good job.”
She argued the broader issue is not labor violations, but an immigration policy that makes it difficult for people to come the United States and legally work, forcing immigrants into a shadow labor market.
Hearst Connecticut Media found many examples of apparent labor violations in nail salons and spas in the state at businesses where the state did not issue orders.
Marissa Watson, a 38-year-old Meriden resident, said she experienced numerous labor abuses while working at a West Hartford spa from February to November 2015.
Watson did nails, waxing and skin care for clients, but she also worked the front desk, giving her access to the computer holding the spa’s payroll records. She said her boss did not pay her or the two other employees all the tips they earned. Tips paid by credit cards were often left out of their paychecks.
Watson noticed their paychecks were repeatedly $100 less than they were supposed to be, she said. Also, Watson was told she would be an employee when she was hired, but then was paid as an independent contractor for 23 months, she said.
She eventually quit. She never filed a complaint to the state about the spa, which is still operating.
Watson, who now operates her own nail business in Middletown, said she wanted to file a complaint. But she said, “I didn’t know technically if I had proof” of the alleged violations.
Andrea Doyle has owned Nails by Andrea in Branford for 16 years and also works for a manufacturer, teaching nail technicians how to use its products. Doyle has heard many stories from workers who were not paid overtime or all their tips, she said.