Nail salons were eerily empty for the opening salvo of sandal season this, after an article in The New York Times confirmed what at least some cheap manicure-loving New Yorkers must have long suspected: many salon workers are woefully underpaid.
On Thursday, the paper posted the first of a two-part investigation into the nail salon industry. The story, which detailed the ways that nail salon workers are underpaid and endangered by exposure to hazardous toxins, has garnered a great deal of attention.
“We had no idea it would go viral,” reporter Sarah Maslin Nir, who spent over a year on the expose, told the Observer earlier this afternoon. “We thought it would be well-read and pique people’s interest but this has been astounding.”
The story’s popularity is in no small part a result of the prevelence of the cheap after-work manicure habit among New York women (and some men). “I think that the unintentional complictness in this is what really has people shocked,” Ms. Nir said. “It’s not happening somewhere else. It’s happening to someone you hold hands with once a week.”
Of course, if any of us really thought about it, we shouldn’t have been shocked by the fact that the people cutting out toenails and trimming our cuticles aren’t adequately paid. After all, most manicures cost around $10. And anyone who has spent some time in a salon can assume that constant exposure to the fumes is not healthy. But as is true for most of the cheap luxuries that many of us take for granted, it’s easy to avoid thinking about the people who make our comfortable lives possible.
By the end of the weekend, the story had become so big that it prompted government intervention.
Governor Andrew Cuomo announced the formation of an emergency task force to combat the dangerous conditions and unfair labor practices that Ms. Nir uncovered in her investigation.
“Today we’re starting a multi-agency effort to help women who work in nail salons. Why? Because the women who work in nail salons tend not to have resources, they tend not to have power, they tend not to have lawyers with them,” Mr. Cuomo said. “Sometimes they are of questionable legal status so they are afraid to go to the authorities to make a complaint and they are extorted and they are victimized. Many of them don’t even get paid the minimum wage and can’t do anything about it.”
The fact that the governor could announce a response the same day that print subscribers saw it on the front page is a result of an optimized publication schedule, with the story having gone online Thursday and Friday, running in print on Sunday. The story was simultaneously published in Korean, Chinese, and Spanish (as well as English) so that the more than 125 workers that Ms. Nir (with the help of a team of translators) had interviewed over course of her reporting would be able to read the finished story.
Ms. Nir kicked off what a whirlwind media tour on CBS This Morning last Friday. Since then, she has spoken about her investigation on television, radio and social media. When we spoke to her earlier this afternoon, she was getting ready to answer reader questions on the Times‘ Facebook page (and it wasn’t the first time she had done so) and she is still being booked on various shows.
And, according to Ms. Nir, interest in the story continues even after the segments end. “When they go off the air, the anchors actually ask me more questions because they are just really perturbed,” she said. “They are really invested in the story and shocked by it.”
One question that Ms. Nir has been frequently asked is what a customer can do. Is there any way to get your nails filed without guilt? In a separate (and popular) post, Ms. Nir acknowledged that a solution is “challenging” and, as she has said in multiple interviews, told us that she didn’t find any good actors in her investigation.
The governor gave this somewhat simplistic advice to consumers, following an unrelated press conference during which is spoke about his emergency task force:
“When you walk into the nail salon, just say to the owner ‘by the way are you paying what the law says you’re supposed to pay? Are you following the law in terms of hours?’ Ask the workers who are there, just say, ‘do you feel that you’ve been treated fairly?’ And if the answer is no, go to a different nail salon,” Mr. Cuomo said. “If the owner of that nail salon sees people asking those questions and sees people walking out and walking down the block to the next nail salon, you will see how fast this changes.”
Over the weekend, Ms. Nir heard various reactions from readers. Some said they are going to tip more or start doing it themselves or stop going to the salon altogether. New York Times Book Review editor Pamela Paul tweeted a picture this morning of her naked nails:
It’s unclear if the piece will have a long-lasting impact, or just prompt salon-addicts to stay away for a few weeks than guiltily tip a little more, but it certainly underscores the value of lengthy investigative journalism projects. Just the fact that The New York Times devoted so much time and money to a story–and that it is prompting not only conversation but legislation– feels like a win for many journalists trying to make a case for the value of the time and resources to do quality reporting.