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


I met Han outside a Vietnamese fast food store at a strip mall near her house in Santa Anna this November. I was early, but she hit me there and roamed around the parking lot. Some gray strands of her otherwise her black hair surrounded her face. She got iced coffee, but she said she couldn’t get back to work yet. She sat behind her umbrella, leaning back and forth on her chair, fidgeting her right foot, then her left foot, and peeling off her straw wrapping paper. She said her children sometimes sent her hundreds of dollars, but she didn’t want to burden her. She saved some of the money she earned during the pandemic, but it was in short supply. She thought it might last until the new year. “At that time, if I can’t find a job, I’m confused,” she said.

“People think nail salons are this luxury, but they have another side,” she told me. She laughed nervously and remembered how she was sitting in an empty salon all day in early 2020. “I’m afraid I have to experience it again,” she said. She was worried that she wouldn’t be able to catch the fish if she found another grooming job. Some of her friends went back to her job and said they didn’t have enough customers — they told her it wasn’t worth it.

I met one of my friends, Tammy Trang, at another Vietnamese restaurant just a short walk from her house in Orange County. Two days ago at 9:30 in the morning, Tran went to work in a “nice and beautiful salon,” she said. “You can say it’s expensive.” The first customer didn’t show up until 4 pm. Many of our former customers may not be out as much as they used to be, and completing nails may not be a priority at this time. That night, the owner of the salon was called Tran. “And he said,’Well, it’s too late, so I’m going to fire more people,'” she told me. She got the job after she was fired at another salon two weeks ago. There she worked for about a month. At the salon, her owner had notified her a week ago. “This was very good,” she said when dipping the grilled pork spring rolls in the sauce. “Another owner-I don’t think he cares,” Tran said when she talked to Han, she advised her to stay home for as long as possible.

We asked Saba Wahid, Principal Investigator at the UCLA Labor Center, if many manicureists chose not to return to work and if this was part of a phenomenon called major retirement. “Obviously, the low-wage sector has a lot of dynamics,” said Wahid, who said that employees in places like nail salons, employees who may have worked remotely during a pandemic, and others. Distinguished from employees who had an economic cushion that allowed them the freedom to quit their jobs. Not everyone who decides not to go back to work makes the right choice. In some cases, no work has been done or it has not been done as before. Still, according to Wahid, some low-wage employees have the opportunity to face their working conditions and decide not to return. “I think awakening is happening,” Wahid said.

Tammy Trang’s mother runs a nail salon, and Trang has been working in the salon since high school. She currently has two teenage sons and she is the only earner in her family. Like Han, Tran is good at acrylic. When she went to the interview for her last job, she said, her owner asked her to do five different types of acrylic in the hands of the model. After her girlfriend was over, he told her to come to her job the next day. But lately, when Tran is working, she often sees only a few customers a day. If they have a basic manicure, she will earn $ 16, 20 cents, and a tip, respectively. “It’s not even enough for gas,” Tran said. In California, gas prices are approaching $ 5 per gallon. Tran sometimes spends $ 60 a week to go to work.

Nail technician Tammy Trang stands outside a salon in Tustin, Orange County.

At the restaurant, Trang took out his cell phone and opened a website with job listings in Vietnamese. “Look, they have hundreds,” she said, scrolling through the list with her index finger. “But many of them are really far away. There isn’t much work to do than before .. .. And do you know how many people call? Many people.” She finds a new place I was convinced, but she told me that without a steady gig, no patron would offer consistency and greater hints. “What can I do?” She added. “They cut off other benefits — you can’t just stay home.”

Tran said he would be hired because he looks younger than 47. “Sometimes they go like” Oh, I have to meet you “, so you have to drive to the salon to meet them, and they just go,” OK , You can go home, and we will call you, “but in fact, they know they won’t call you,” she said. She told me that her last job explicitly sought employees under the age of 40 and she was lying about her age. She unplugged the phone again and returned to the list. About 10 seconds later she turned the screen towards me. Below some basic information in Vietnamese, there were only uppercase words in the ad. “NEED YOUNG WORKERS, ACRYLIC”.

Shortly after, Tran received a phone call from the bank informing him that the credit card he had given to his eldest son, a senior in high school, was charged $ 5.47. “Look, they’re always spending money,” she said, withdrawing other recent credit card notifications. “I just can’t stay home.”

When I visited Han and Trang, the California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative and UCLA Labor Center published another study. The survey found that 88% of nail salon owners do not have enough customers to cover their expenses, and 83% of workers face a significant loss of income. Meanwhile, 19% of owners and 14% of workers personally experienced anti-Asia discrimination and harassment.

Kathylynn Do, who owns a 700-square-foot nail salon in Santa Monica for over a decade, has recovered his business when people started heading to the beach in the summer, but it’s been slower than ever since. She can’t hire four workers and she now has only two, so she pays hourly, but Do loses money most of the week. Prices of supplies have doubled or tripled, and rents are more than $ 30,000 behind. She pays her daily expenses on a low-interest Small and Medium Business loan that she borrowed in June, but if things don’t improve, she defaults on the loan and is forced to retire early. There are nail salons in almost every block of Santa Monica, and owners sometimes get together and chat during breaks. Debt is a recurring topic, Do said. She had planned to work for at least five or six more years, but her anxiety and headaches are getting worse. “I like to make people feel good about themselves,” she told me. “I see myself as an artist rather than a salon owner, but now I can’t cope with stress.”

Kathy Lin Do sits at her own salon, Santa Monica Beach Nail Spa.

After the New Year, Han suspended job hunting for Omicron. She heard that more customers appeared before and after the holiday, but she said the rise soon disappeared. Her friend told her that she would lose her money if she returned to her job now. She’s probably aiming for March. “It’s hard for me to make a plan,” she said. Her financial situation has become severe and she is now restricted to driving her only once a week. Gas is expensive, but driving helps keep her sane. Meanwhile, Tran started working in a new salon and was there for about three weeks. The business was slow and she was devoted to saving money to achieve her goals. “It’s a problem many people face, but I’m more worried about my son than my financial situation,” she said. Her eldest son graduated from high school and suffers from his mental health while thinking about what to do with his rest of his life.



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