Hanh was a Vietnamese food truck on the strip. I first met her in November. Near her Santa Ana residence, mall Even though she arrived late, I saw her already and could see that she was already walking around the lot. The gray hairs on her other black hair were framing her face. Iced coffees were ordered by us. The woman said that she is not yet capable of returning to work. Under an umbrella, she settled down and lean backwards and forwards on a chair. She rolls her straw wrapper between her left and right legs, fiddling with them. She said that her children occasionally sent her a few hundred dollars but that she didn’t want to be a burden. Some of the money that she had received in the aftermath of the pandemic was kept by her, but now it was running out. She thought that it would be sufficient to get through the year. “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 was willing to agree. 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 was one of the close friends. Tammy Tran worked at a Vietnamese eatery just blocks away from my Orange County residence. 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 stated that it is possible to distinguish employees employed in salons from people who were able to work remotely during the epidemic or those with financial support that enabled them quit. 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. After she completed five acrylics on the model, her owner invited her to apply for the final job. She was told to complete her work after she is done. 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 may spend up to sixty dollars per week just to reach 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,”This was while she scrolled through the list with 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 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. This ad only had Vietnamese capitalized words. “NEED YOUNG WORKERS, ACRYLIC.”
Tran got a text message from her bank advising her that she had five dollars, forty seven cents and was being charged to her credit card. It was her senior high school student’s card. “See, they’re always spending money,”She stated that she was looking for other credit card notifications. “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-quarter of workers had suffered from 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 boasts a nail bar on almost every street. Owners meet often during breaks to talk. Do mentioned that debt was a frequent topic. Do had hoped to stay employed for five to six years more, but her anxiety has been causing headaches. “I like making people feel good about themselves,”It was her way of saying 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 enabled Hanh to stop looking for work 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 agreed. 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 has been employed in a new salon since 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 struggles with his mental health, and is trying to find a way to enjoy the rest of her life.