Originally Published in The New York Times
Juliana Kims - November 23, 2020
On most days, Juyoung Lee is the only person inside Beverly Nail Studio, the salon that she owns in Flushing, Queens. It is often eerily quiet, and when no customers come by, Ms. Lee at times sits at her work station and weeps.
“Maybe, just maybe, tomorrow will be busy,” she said. “I’m waiting.”
Like nail salons across New York City, her business had to close when the pandemic hit in March. There was a brief surge in demand after the lockdown was lifted in July, but then appointments started dwindling. Often, customers requested cheaper services. Now, they hardly come at all.
The beauty industry in the city seemed well positioned to bounce back after restrictions ended. After all, many customers had spent months without professional grooming. But now, many of these businesses are on the verge of collapse — a drastic hit for an industry that is an economic engine for immigrant women.
Some nail salons have had a difficult time persuading customers that it is safe to come in. Others, especially those in Manhattan business districts, have yet to see regular customers come back because many of them had left the city or are working from home.
With 26 years of nail salon experience and 20 years of savings poured into her own business, Ms. Lee, 53, said there was nothing else that she can imagine doing. But she’s barely staying afloat.
“Even though it was hard before, I was always able to pay the bills. But now, no matter how hard I work, I make no money,” she said.
Nail salon visits in the state have dropped by more than 50 percent, and sales have fallen by more than 40 percent, according to an October survey of 161 salon owners conducted by the Nail Industry Federation of New York.
The New York Nail Salon Workers Association, an advocacy group affiliated with the union Workers United, said less than half of 594 workers surveyed had returned to work as of August. In New York City, there were 4,240 nail salons in 2016, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Three percent of the country’s nail salons are in Brooklyn, and 2 percent are in Queens.
“The work force is primarily immigrant workers living paycheck to paycheck, supporting children and in many cases sick and aging family members in their own countries,” said Luis Gomez, the association’s organizing director. “Add the recession and the effects of the pandemic on top, and we anticipate that many workers will fall even deeper into poverty.”
In Queens, Rambika Ulak KC, 50, said she had so much business shortly after reopening in July that she hired back all 10 of her employees part-time. But now, she sees only about four customers a day.
Ms. Ulak dropped out of college in Nepal to come to the United States. When she developed carpal tunnel from giving manicures or was berated by customers frustrated by her poor English, she would fix her eyes on the photos of her daughter taped to the wall. Now, as her business erodes, she finds herself looking back at the photos even more often.
“That’s why I work so hard,” Ms. Ulak said. “So I can tell her, ‘Don’t think of my future, just be happy and focus on your studies.’”
Salons were able to reopen in July at 50 percent capacity, with waiting rooms banned and walk-ins discouraged.
While indoor services pose more risks for virus transmission, Dr. Joshua Zeichner, director of cosmetic and clinical research at Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan, said that if everyone wears masks and customers are properly social distancing, they’re “somewhat safer than with indoor dining.”
Still, many industry leaders worry that salons won’t be able to win back customers’ full confidence and subsequently recover until a vaccine is in wide use.
Older women may have less career flexibility should the industry continue to crater, said Prarthana Gurung, campaign manager at Adhikaar, a Nepali work center that assists nearly 1,300 Nepali-speaking salon workers in New York City.
“There is a subset of women who’ve been in the nail salon industry for decades, and this is it regardless of what happens,” Ms. Gurung said.
Hannah Lee, 60, is one of those women: Since she arrived in the United States, she has worked only in nail salons. Ms. Lee reluctantly left South Korea after her husband persuaded her there would be better jobs here, she said.
Though she missed South Korea, she didn’t complain — as a salon worker, Ms. Lee learned English on the job, saved enough to put her son through college and always paid her rent on time.
Even now, Ms. Lee recognizes she is lucky to be hired back at salons in Queens and Manhattan, where she worked before the pandemic. But she said both salons rarely have any customers these days. She often receives only a few dollars in tips, sometimes nothing at all.
Her pay plummeted from $1,000 per week to $300. She’s behind on rent and is barely able to afford groceries, she said. But she said she refused to look into other industries and is on the hunt for a third nail salon gig despite her worries about her health.
“I just want to feel comfortable with my life. I don’t want anxiety when I go to work about whether customers will come today or not, whether I will get the virus today or not,” she said in Korean.
In Jackson Heights, Queens, Mariwvey Ramirez, 38, recently went back to work after being furloughed for a second time at the Rego Park salon where she worked because of the neighborhood closures.
The first time, back in March, was financially devastating for Ms. Ramirez, who is undocumented and therefore ineligible to collect unemployment. Even now, Ms. Ramirez, a single mother, was only hired back part time. Her wages went from $700 a week to $400.
Ms. Ramirez moved to the United States from Mexico 18 years ago to be with her brother, who moved to the country first, and worked in the salon industry for 17 years.
“I don’t know how to do anything else, for all these years, I worked in nail salons — really my whole life,” she said in Spanish.
The only silver lining has been that now that she has free time, she has enrolled in a class to learn English — in part to broaden her job opportunities, but mostly to advance in the nail salon industry once the pandemic subsides.
Juyoung Lee, the owner of the Beverly Nail Studio, moved from South Korea to New York City 30 years ago. When she arrived, she could only find work in the dry cleaning, garment and nail salon industries because of her limited English.
She first landed a job at a sewing factory, but a few years later, it closed down. She tried her luck in the nail business, saving up for more than two decades to open up her own salon.
When Ms. Lee first toured the vacant storefront that would become her salon in 2014, the real estate agent told her he couldn’t imagine the worn-down space turning into a nail shop, she recalled. But Ms. Lee could see it — the pink walls, a row of plush pedicure chairs, a collection of nail polish in every conceivable color.
“This was my dream,” Ms. Lee said. “Really, this is every employee’s dream to open up their own salon.”