What Returning to Work Means in the Nail Salons of Orange County

I met Hanh this past November, outside a Vietnamese fast-food place at a strip mall near her home in Santa Ana. I was early, but she had beat me there and was pacing around the parking lot. A couple gray strands in her otherwise black hair framed her face. We got iced coffees, and she told me that she had not yet been able to go back to work. She sat in the shade of an umbrella and leaned forward and backward in her chair, fidgeting with her right leg and then her left, picking apart the paper wrapper of her straw. She said that her children occasionally sent her a few hundred dollars but that she didn’t want to be a burden. She had saved some of the money that she got during the pandemic, but it was running low; she thought it might last until the New Year. “If I can’t find a job then, I’m screwed,” she said.

“People think of nail salons as being this luxury, but there’s another side to them,” she told me. She laughed nervously, remembering how, in early 2020, she would sit in the empty salon all day. “I’m dreading having to go through that again,” she said. She worried that, even if she found another manicuring job, she wouldn’t catch any fish. A couple of her friends had gone back to work and said that there weren’t enough customers—it wasn’t worth it, they told her.

I met one of those friends, Tammy Tran, at a different Vietnamese restaurant, a short walk from her home in Orange County. Two days before, at nine-thirty in the morning, Tran had gone to work at “a nice beautiful salon,” she said. “You can tell it’s expensive.” The first customer did not appear until four in the afternoon. It’s likely that many former customers are not going out as much as they used to, and getting their nails done may not be a priority at the moment. That night, the owner of the salon called Tran. “And he goes, ‘Uh, it’s too slow, so we’re going to lay off more people,’ ” she told me. She’d taken the job two weeks earlier, after getting laid off at another salon, where she’d worked for about a month. At that salon, the owner had given her a week’s notice. “Which was very nice,” she said, as she dipped a grilled-pork spring roll into sauce. “The other owner—I guess, he just doesn’t care.” Tran said that when she talks to Hanh, she encourages her to stay home as long as possible.

I asked Saba Waheed, the research director at the U.C.L.A. Labor Center, whether many manicurists were choosing not to go back to work, and whether this was part of a phenomenon that some have called the Great Resignation. “Clearly, there are different dynamics across the low-wage sector,” Waheed said, distinguishing employees at places like nail salons from those who might have worked remotely during the pandemic or had some financial cushion that allowed them the freedom to stop working. Not everyone who decides not to go back to work is really making a choice, exactly; in some cases, the work isn’t there, or not the way it was. Still, Waheed said, some low-wage employees have had a chance to confront their working conditions and have decided not to return to them. “I think there’s an awakening happening,” Waheed said.

Tammy Tran’s mother owned a nail salon, and Tran has been working in salons since high school. She now has two teen-age sons and is her household’s only breadwinner. Like Hanh, Tran is skilled at acrylics. When she went to interview for her last job, she said, the owner asked her to do five different types of acrylics on a model hand. After she finished, he told her to show up to work the next day. But, these days, when Tran is working, she often only sees a couple of customers in a day. If they’re getting basic manicures, she’ll make sixteen dollars and twenty cents from each, plus tip. “It’s not even enough for gas,” Tran said. In California, gas prices are nearing five dollars a gallon; Tran sometimes spends sixty dollars a week getting to work.

Tammy Tran, a nail technician, stands outside a salon in Tustin, Orange County.

At the restaurant, Tran pulled out her phone and opened a Web site with job listings in Vietnamese. “See, they have hundreds of them,” she said, scrolling through the list with her index finger, “but a lot of them are really far away. There are not a lot of jobs compared to before. . . . And you know how many people call? A lot of people.” She was confident that she’d find a new spot, but, without a steady gig, she told me, you don’t have regular customers who offer consistency and bigger tips. “What can you do?” she added. “They cut off the other benefits—you can’t just stay home.”

Tran said that she gets hired because she looks younger than her forty-seven years. “Sometimes they go, like, ‘Oh, I have to see you,’ so you have to drive to the salon to meet them, and they just go, ‘O.K., you can go home and we’ll call you,’ but for real they know that they’re not going to call you,” she said. She told me that her last job asked explicitly for employees under forty, and that she lied about her age. She pulled out her phone again and went back to the list. After about ten seconds, she turned her screen toward me. Beneath some basic info in Vietnamese were the only capitalized words in the ad: “NEED YOUNG WORKERS, ACRYLIC.”

A little later, Tran got a notification on her phone, from her bank, letting her know that five dollars and forty-seven cents had been charged to her credit card, which she had given to her older son, a senior in high school. “See, they’re always spending money,” she said, pulling up other recent credit-card notifications. “I can’t just stay home.”

Around the time I visited Hanh and Tran, the California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative and the U.C.L.A. Labor Center released another survey. This time, the survey found that eighty-eight per cent of nail-salon owners didn’t have enough customers to meet their expenses and that eighty-three per cent of workers were facing a significant drop in their earnings. Meanwhile, nineteen per cent of owners and fourteen per cent of workers had personally experienced anti-Asian discrimination or harassment.

Kathylynn Do, who has owned a seven-hundred-square-foot nail salon in Santa Monica for more than a decade, told me that, in the summer, as people began heading to the beach, business picked up, but that it had since become slower than ever. She wasn’t able to hire back four of her workers, and now she only has two, whom she pays hourly, but Do still loses money most weeks. Supplies have doubled or tripled in price, and she is more than thirty thousand dollars behind on rent. She has been paying daily expenses with a low-interest Small Business Administration loan that she took out in June, but if things don’t get better she’ll be forced to default on the loan and retire early. There is a nail salon on almost every block in Santa Monica, and sometimes the owners will gather during breaks to chat. Debt is a recurring topic, Do said. She had planned to work for at least five or six more years, but the anxiety and the headaches are becoming too much. “I like making people feel good about themselves,” she told me. “I see myself more like an artist than a salon owner or anything like that. But I can’t handle the stress now.”

Kathylynn Do sits at the Santa Monica Beach Nail Spa, the salon that she owns.

After the New Year, Hanh paused her job search, on account of Omicron. She said she’d heard that more customers appeared around the holidays, but that the uptick died down quickly; her friends told her she’d lose money if she went back to work now. She’s eyeing March, maybe. “It’s hard for me to make plans,” she said. Her financial situation has grown tighter, and she now limits herself to driving around only once a week—the gas is expensive, but the driving helps keep her sane, she said. Tran, meanwhile, had begun working at a new salon, and had been there for about three weeks. Business was slow, and she was dipping into her savings to make ends meet. “It’s an issue a lot of folks are facing,” she said, “but I’m more worried about my son than my financial situation.” Her older son is graduating high school and struggling with his mental health while trying to figure out what to do with the rest of his life.

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