I met Hanh outside a Vietnamese fast food place on a strip in November. mallNear her Santa Ana home. Although I was late, she was already there and was already pacing the parking lot. Her face was framed by a few gray strands of her otherwise black hair. We ordered iced coffees. She said she was not yet able to return to work. She sat down under an umbrella and lean forward and backward in a chair. She fidgets with her right leg and her left, picking apart 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. She had kept some of the money she received during the pandemic, but it was now running out. She thought it might be enough to 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 said it to me. She giggled nervously as she recalled how she would spend all day in the empty salon in early 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.
Tammy Tran, one of those close friends, was a waitress at a Vietnamese restaurant just a few blocks from my Orange County home. Tran had gone into work at nine-thirty the previous day. “a nice beautiful salon,”She said. “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,’ ”She said it to 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 this as she dipped a grilled pork spring roll in sauce “The other owner—I guess, he just doesn’t care.”Tran stated that Hanh encourages Tran to stay home as much as possible when she talks to her.
Saba Waheed, U.C.L.A.’s research director, was the person I asked. Labor Center, whether many manicurists are refusing to return to work and whether this is part of what some call the Great Resignation. “Clearly, there are different dynamics across the low-wage sector,”Waheed explained that employees working in places like nail salons can be distinguished from those who may have worked remotely during the pandemic, or had a financial cushion that allowed them to quit their jobs. 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 stated that some low-wage workers have had the opportunity to confront their work conditions and decided not to return. “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. Tran, like Hanh is skilled in acrylics. She said that the owner asked her to do five types of acrylics on a model and then she was invited to interview for her final job. He told her to finish after she was done. showThe next day, Tran is back at work. Tran sees only a few customers per day these days. 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 can sometimes spend sixty dollars a week to get to work in California.
Tran pulled out her smartphone and opened a Web page with job listings in Vietnamese. “See, they have hundreds of them,” She said this while scrolling through the list using 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 stated that she is hired because she appears younger than her forty-seven 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 said. She explained that her last job required employees under forty and that she had lied to me about her age. She pulled out her smartphone again and returned to the list. After about ten seconds, her screen turned toward me. The only capitalized words in this ad were those in Vietnamese. “NEED YOUNG WORKERS, ACRYLIC.”
Tran received a notification on her mobile phone from her bank notifying her that five dollars and forty seven cents had been charged onto her credit card. This was the card she had given to her older child, who was a senior at high school. “See, they’re always spending money,”She said that she was looking up other recent credit card notifications. “I can’t just stay home.”
I was visiting Hanh and Tran 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. Nineteen per cent of owners, and fourteen per cent were workers who had 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. Her supplies have increased in price by more than 30%, and her rent payments are over thirty thousand dollars behind. 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 has a nail shop on every block. Owners often meet during breaks to chat. Do said that debt is a common topic. She had intended to work for at most five to six more years, but anxiety is causing her headaches. “I like making people feel good about themselves,”She said it to me. “I see myself more like an artist than a salon owner or anything like that. But I can’t handle the stress now.”
Hanh stopped her job search after the new year, due to 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 had been working in a new salon for three weeks. She was struggling to make ends meets as her business was slow. “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 about to graduate high school. He is struggling with mental health and trying desperately to figure out how to live the rest of his life.