Salons and barbershops serve as central gathering spots and hubs for communities. The shuttering of these businesses to slow the spread of coronavirus certainly impacts customers. But for workers with limited safety nets, the consequences can be especially dire. On March 20, New York governor Andrew Cuomo told all nonessential workers to stay at home, with closures of nail salons, barbershops, and tattoo parlors taking effect the next evening.
In New York, the average hourly pay for nail salon workers is $12.53 with tips, according to Leanne Tory-Murphy, an organizer at the New York Nail Salon Workers Association. A 2017 Economic Policy Institute report found that workers who took just three days of unpaid sick leave sacrificed an entire month’s worth of groceries, with seven or more days equating to losing a month’s rent or a monthly mortgage payment.
Some salon workers are turning to community funds, like the Nail Salon Worker Relief and Resilience Platform, which directly benefits nail technicians struggling to stay afloat.
Fast Company spoke with two Mandarin-speaking nail technicians via a translator through the New York Nail Salon Workers Association, about the challenges they are currently facing during this global pandemic. “Everything is really difficult,” says Nicole C., 50, an eyebrow and nail specialist who works at a salon in Manhattan.
“If the boss decides to open the salon tomorrow,” says Nicole’s coworker Celine, 58, a long-time manicurist, “then I have to go do it.”
Here is what it’s like for these workers, now stuck at home:
“I don’t have one cent coming in”
Celine: The salon we work at is currently closed. We found out when the boss suddenly told us, “You don’t need to come in tomorrow.” We took that to mean the salon was shutting down. The workers all felt an immense amount of pressure and stress. We immediately thought, What are we going to do from now on?
On top of that, I feel I may have the coronavirus. I feel some of the symptoms, including the difficulty breathing, but I am not completely sure.
Nicole: I was looking at my phone and spotted the news [that salons were closing], and then the boss told us they would be closing the shop.
I don’t know what the management is going to do. They might be closing for good, and I’ve heard that they took out all the equipment and supplies. This makes me feel helpless and not sure what to do from here.
Celine: Right now, I am at home in Flushing. I don’t have one cent coming in. I am not making an income. Along with the feeling I have coronavirus, the pressure is making everything worse.
Nicole: I am at home, as well. I have a child, who has allergies and who is in bed right now.
Before the outbreak, I fell in the salon and injured my foot. I don’t feel good. Even right now, my left foot is having some issues. It makes it extraordinarily difficult to even get around and go to the grocery store. I’ve had friends helping me buy groceries.
“Right now, everything is about money”
Celine: At the salon, I do all the small and big jobs. It is my full-time job, and I am there 40 hours a week. I’ve worked steadily in the industry for 20 years, since my 30s.
The upcoming days and weeks look unclear. I don’t know what my future is going to be like. If the boss decides to open the salon tomorrow, then I have to go do it. What choice do I have? I don’t have any money.
My husband is also not working. He was an Uber driver. Our rent will be due soon, and we don’t have money to pay it. We also have to cover the costs of our car, which is, with insurance, about $3,000 every month. All we can think about right now is money, because we are in desperate need of it. We’re looking for any way we can get help.
Nicole: Yes, everything is really difficult right now. Even if I wanted to buy a face mask, I couldn’t find one in the stores.
Celine: And if we wanted to work, we couldn’t find it. All the salons were forced to close, and that has shut down our chances for finding work. Before this event, we were planning to work until retirement. Instead, all I am thinking about is how to make ends meet. Right now, everything is about money. All my worries revolve around it.
This interview has been condensed for length and clarity.