For 10 years, Lucky Nguyen said, she has worked in nail salons, not complaining about the long hours or low pay. "Even when [a] customer … kicked my face, no one defended me. I kept quiet so I could keep working."
If she could change one thing, the 46-year-old manicurist said, she'd have a W-2 — be an employee rather than an independent contractor. "All this time, that has been my dream," Nguyen said. Salon owners "care more about their clients than they care about us."
"We are paid in cash, there are no records, everything can be erased," Nguyen said. "Even who we are."
At a recent community forum in Little Saigon, she, fellow manicurists and salon owners listened intently as members of the California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative discussed topics such as safe working conditions, overtime and paid sick leave.
"When we talk to salon owners, they don't know the regulations," said Lisa Fu, the collaborative's outreach and program director. "Maybe they used to be workers. They just saved up enough money to open their own place, and they're following what their bosses did in the past. Armed with the right information, we hope they do the right thing."
California has more than 8,500 nail salons and, according to the state Board of Barbering and Cosmetology, there are 352,184 licensed manicurists and cosmetologists combined — up to 80% of whom are Vietnamese. In 2014, manicurists earned an average of $22,500, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. They work with chemicals known to and suspected of causing cancer, skin and respiratory problems and reproductive harm.
"You may ask: If the customer isn't afraid, why should I be?" said collaborative program coordinator Phuong An Doan, ticking off dangerous ingredients found in nail products, such as toluene and formaldehyde. Clients, she said, "come back, at most, once a week, even if they like to be fancy. But you are working each day, every day."
Many in the audience of three dozen used smartphones to record everything the speakers shared.
For nearly three hours, state and federal labor specialists discussed the basics of filing a wage claim, what a minor's work permit requires and the difference between an independent contractor and an employee.
Tony Pham and Lydia Nguyen, with the U.S. Department of Labor, explained what investigators look for when they step into a salon for inspections. "The first thing I will ask for is time cards," Lydia Nguyen said, addressing salon owners. "If you don't have records, all I will rely on is the word of your employee."
Organizers allowed listeners to ask questions anonymously.
One salon owner wanted to know whether he would have to pay overtime if a nail technician worked 60 hours one week and 20 hours the next.
Larry Nguyen, who works in Irvine and has run salons for 30 years, said, "I don't find this as educational as it's creating difficulties for the small-business owner. The law is so demanding that to satisfy them, who would dare to be an owner?"
But Thu Le, who supervises 30 technicians at Red Persimmon Salon & Spa in Riverside, said: "I learned that I can change to make it even better for my staff. Sometimes they want to work more hours. Now I need to teach them" the reasoning behind regulations.
As the event wound down, Lucky Nguyen expressed doubts that her working life would improve.
"When a customer walks in, it doesn't matter what time it is, they stay open until no one is left," she said of all the salons she's worked in. "I don't think this will ever change."