Hanh and I met outside of a Vietnamese restaurant on a Strip in November. near her Santa Ana house. Even though she arrived late, I saw her already and could see that she was going to the car park. A few grey strands from her black hair framed her face. We both ordered iced espressos. We ordered iced coffees. She stated that she wasn’t yet able return to work. The umbrella covered her, and she leaned forward and backwards in a chair. She is fumbling with her left leg, and picking up the straw wrapper. She said that her children occasionally sent her a few hundred dollars but that she didn’t want to be a burden. Although she kept some money from the pandemic, it was quickly running out. It might have enough money to keep her going until next year, she thought. “If I can’t find a job then, I’m screwed,”She stated.
“People think of nail salons as being this luxury, but there’s another side to them,”I heard her say it. She giggled as she remembered how long she would be spending in the salon empty in 2020. “I’m dreading having to go through that again,”She agreed. 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.
One of these close friends was Tammy Tran. She worked as a waitress in a Vietnamese restaurant a short distance from my Orange County house. Tran was ninety-three the day before. “a nice beautiful salon,”She stated. “You can tell it’s expensive.”The first customer didn’t arrive until after 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. Tran was the salon’s owner that night. “And he goes, ‘Uh, it’s too slow, so we’re going to lay off more people,’ ”I heard her say it. 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,”As she was about to dip a spring roll of grilled pork in sauce, she said it. “The other owner—I guess, he just doesn’t care.”Tran mentioned that Hanh tells Tran she encourages her to stay at home when she speaks to her.
Saba Waheed, U.C.L.A.’s research director, was the person I asked. Labor Center to find out if many manicurists have refused to return to work or if this is part what some refer to as the Great Resignation. “Clearly, there are different dynamics across the low-wage sector,”Waheed said that workers who work in nail salons are different from employees who worked remotely or have a financial cushion which allowed them to leave their job. 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. Waheed said that low-wage workers may have been able to face their workplace and made a decision not to go back. “I think there’s an awakening happening,”Waheed spoke.
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 proficient in acrylics. According to her, the owner requested that she do five different types of acrylics for a model before inviting her to interview for her final position. After she finished, he told her to stop. The next day Tran returned to work. Tran is only seeing a couple of clients per 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. California’s gas prices are at an all-time high of five dollars per gallon. Tran might spend 60 dollars each week getting to work in California.
Tran reached for her phone and opened a web page that displayed job openings in Vietnamese. “See, they have hundreds of them,”While scrolling through the lists with her index finger, she said it. “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 continued. “They cut off the other benefits—you can’t just stay home.”
Tran said that Tran is being hired as she looks younger than her 47-year old self. “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 replied. I asked her why her previous job had required her to be under 40 years old. She said that it was because she had been lying about her age. The list was still open when she pulled out her phone. I was able to see her screen after about ten seconds. These were the only capitalized words in the ad. “NEED YOUNG WORKERS, ACRYLIC.”
Tran was notified by her bank via her mobile phone that her credit card had been charged with five dollars and forty-seven cents. She had previously given this card to her younger child who was in high school seniors. “See, they’re always spending money,”According to her, she was looking at other recent notifications for credit cards. “I can’t just stay home.”
Hanh and Tran were my hosts at the California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative and U.C.L.A. Labor Center 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. One-quarter of the owners and one-fourth were employees who have been subject to anti Asian discrimination, harassment or other forms.
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. The cost of her supplies has increased by over 30% and she is now paying rent in excess of thirty thousand dollars. 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. Santa Monica is home to a nail salon on each block. Owners meet often during breaks to talk. Do stated that the topic of debt is common. Although she had intended to be employed for only five- to six additional years, anxiety is making her anxious. “I like making people feel good about themselves,”I heard her say it. “I see myself more like an artist than a salon owner or anything like that. But I can’t handle the stress now.”
Omicron helped Hanh stop her job hunt after the new year. 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 stated. 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 was working at a salon for the past three weeks. Because her business was so slow, she struggled to keep up with the bills. “It’s an issue a lot of folks are facing,”She stated, “but I’m more worried about my son than my financial situation.”Her oldest son is graduating high school. He’s struggling with mental illness and desperately trying to figure out the best way to live his remaining years of life.