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Chipping at the Polish: The Story Behind Sarah Maslin Nir's Nail Salon Investigation

A treat-yourself birthday pedicure in Manhattan’s Koreatown turns into a 13-month New York Times project.
Koreatown in New York City, New York. (Photo: audrey_sel/Flickr)

Koreatown in New York City, New York. (Photo: audrey_sel/Flickr)

At first, the idea of a 24-hour nail salon was nothing more than a fashionista’s novelty for Sarah Maslin Nir. Who ever heard of an all-night nail salon, Nir—then a freelancer and now a staff reporter for the New York Times—wondered to herself over four years ago in the midst of a treat-yourself birthday pedicure in Manhattan’s Koreatown.

Nir was there in the morning, but her curiosity was piqued. “I said to the woman doing my toes, ‘Who does the night shift?’” Nir recalled in conversation with author and fellow journalist Liza Mundy at a recent New America New York City event at Civic Hall. Her pedicurist replied that she worked both the day and the night shifts; six days a week, she slept in a barracks above the salon. “When someone comes for a treatment at night, they shake me awake and I come down to do the treatment,” the woman explained to Nir. At the end of the week, she would return to her apartment in Flushing, Queens, to sleep for 24 hours before returning to work.

“It still gives me shivers to tell the story,” Nir told Mundy, who directs New America’s Breadwinning & Caregiving Program. “At that moment I just thought: This woman is enslaved.” She went on to describe the genesis of and reporting process for Unvarnished—a series of articles written and published simultaneously in four languages—English, Korean, Spanish, and Chinese—in early May. The series examines working conditions and health risks faced by nail salon workers.

“It still gives me shivers to tell the story,” Nir told Mundy. “At that moment I just thought: this woman is enslaved.”

Less than a month since its publication, her expose has prompted New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to institute broad emergency regulations to protect salon workers and further action is in the works. The story’s impact drew comparisons from Mundy to other recent examples of powerful, long-form storytelling with a muckraking bent—such as Jodi Kantor’s piece revealing the details of “just in time” scheduling at Starbucks (after which the company changed its practices)—which have had immediate effects on workplace abuses. With American labor movements lacking staying power, Mundy wondered, “is journalism all we have now in terms of exposing these kinds of abuses?”

Nir pitched the story on nail salons to her editor immediately following her encounter in Koreatown, but it was years later that she got the resources to report on the industry in an in-depth way. “I didn't set out to find fraud,” Nir clarified. “I set out to find out what’s up with this industry.... I just knew something didn’t feel right and I wanted to see what it was.”

What she discovered were manicurists who reported working for no pay and suffering miscarriages after being forced to work in close proximity to toxic chemicals like acetone without proper ventilation. Like immigrant men who get picked up as day laborers, immigrant women were congregating on street corners in Queens each morning to catch a ride to salons in the suburbs for work: “Those people are imported and warehoused in those places.”

She went to the street corners every morning with a translators like Jiha Ham, who is also a veteran reporter for the Korea Times, and gradually got a bead on the interview subjects who would become the main characters in Unvarnished. “I didn’t say tell me about your wage theft,” she reflected. “I said tell me about your life.” And they did. “Everybody wants to be heard,” Nir explained when she talked about how she convinced her sources to open up to her. “And particularly, it’s a burning desire in an incredibly voiceless person, a person who has to smile and nod while they’re living in slums and treated like crap.”

As she interviewed scores of women, Nir tracked her conversations in a series of Google spreadsheets. One of the striking patterns that emerged from her reporting methods is what she described as “inadvertent data journalism.” Much like an earlier New York Times story that identified patterns of racial discrimination in slaughterhouse labor practices, Nir found that, consistently, Hispanic salon workers were paid less and did more grunt work than either Chinese or Korean workers (who, according to Nir, are “at the top” of the industry).

Mapping the consistency of jaw-dropping exploitation became a point of narrative strategy between Nir and her editor during the 13-month process of putting the story together (during which they storyboarded and revised 11 times before settling on a cast of characters). While gravitating to the most gruesomely extreme stories was tempting, in the end, “I really wanted to find the norm, because the norm was bad enough.”

From labor exploitation to sexism to racism, reporting the stories in Unvarnished “has made me re-think so many things,” Nir observed. “When you get a discount service, what is the cost?”

One such story—deemed “too extreme” to believe by her editor and left out of Unvarnished—involved a woman who, like a great many Chinese immigrants working in the United States for low wages, had sent her baby back to China to be cared for until reaching school age. When the child returned, the mother was horrified to discover her child was suffering from cerebral palsy induced by long-term physical abuse back home. At times, she felt such despair that she told Nir she wished she could jump out the window with her child. “It seems so unbelievable,” Nir marveled, “but that’s the real consequence of exploitation.... If you work all the time, if you make too little money, you cannot be a mother. You cannot be a father.”

Gender equality is a value—along with “diversity of viewpoints”—that Nir pursues inside the newsroom as well, where she hosts meetings of what she calls her Old Girls Club. Founded after reading Tina Fey’s line in Bossypants about the women in the Saturday Night Live writers’ room—“the more of us there are the more of us there can be”—the group meets monthly and adheres to one rule only: no modesty. “Could a man have done my story? Absolutely. These women would have talked to a man.... Many of my translators were male. The thinking that only X person has access to X subject is a dangerous thing because the flip side of it is: Can a woman be talking to that man? Can a woman go into that locker room? She can, she does, and she’s coming for you.”

From labor exploitation to sexism to racism, reporting the stories in Unvarnished “has made me re-think so many things,” Nir observed. “When you get a discount service, what is the cost?” To her mind, cheap luxury is an oxymoron that makes consumers complicit in the suffering of others. Nir speculated that the deeply personal response to her stories springs from the status of manicures as “intimate labor. You hold hands with another person. You interlace fingers and you look at them across the table. And I think my story revealed that we never truly saw them.”

Unlike other muckrakers, Nir draws a firm line between working as a journalist and becoming an activist. “A lot of people ask me what I want [to be] done next [about the exploitation of nail salon workers] and my answer is: I’m not an advocate,” she said. “I found a good story. It needed to be told and I told it.”

This post originally appeared in New America’s digital magazine, The Weekly Wonk, a Pacific Standard partner site. Sign up to get The Weekly Wonk delivered to your inbox, and follow @NewAmerica on Twitter.