L.A. County had the nation’s largest percentage of nail salon workers and businesses.

L.A. County had the nation’s largest percentage of nail salon workers and businesses. Photo by Thomas Wasper

Sherley Elghanian opened the Luxe Nail & Spa Boutique in Mid-Wilshire six years ago to fill what she saw as a gap in the market for a shop that emphasized cleanliness. 

But even with that hygienic ethos, Elghanian questions whether her business can survive a global pandemic.


Before the state put Los Angeles County back into lockdown mode on Dec. 7 and ordered salons to temporarily shutter for the second time this year, revenue at Luxe Nail had plunged more than 50%. 


Elghanian predicts revenue will plummet even further with the new shutdown order.
“I don’t know how we will survive this,” she said. “We pay $10,000 a month for rent.”
Industry sources estimate that 20% to 30% of all nail salons in California will close permanently as a result of Covid-19.


Dung Nguyen, program and outreach coordinator at the California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative trade group, has checked in with numerous L.A. nail salons during the pandemic. The owners are worried, if not panicked, she said. 


“They’re seeking legal advice; (they’re asking), ‘What’s going to happen to me if I walk away from my lease? Should I just sell my business at a loss, so I don’t have to deal with the stress?’” Nguyen said.


L.A. County has the largest percentage of nail salon workers and businesses in the United States, according to a 2018 report by the UCLA Labor Center, which put the region’s total at 1,229 salons. 


“In every corner, there’s a nail salon, especially in L.A. County,” Nguyen said. “But that won’t be the case anymore.”


Over the past nine months, L.A. salons have been shuttered, allowed to reopen with reduced capacity, had to move outdoors and ordered to shutter again. 


The timing of the shutdowns was particularly bad, coinciding first with the spring “sandal season” and then with the holiday season — the two most popular periods for the industry in L.A.


In June, three months after the city issued its first stay-at-home order, the California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative partnered with UCLA Labor Center to survey 636 nail salon workers and 90 owners in California. They found that only 6% of owners were able to keep their workers on payroll. 


Many salons now only have one worker on the clock, and it’s often the owner, Nguyen said.


That’s a big blow to low-wage workers who make up 78% of nail salon employees nationwide. The national average of low-wage workers for all industries is 33%, according to the 2018 UCLA report.


Vietnamese influence


In California, 80% of nail salons are owned by Vietnamese immigrants, many of whom settled in the state after the 1975 fall of Saigon.


Before their arrival, a manicure and pedicure cost about $50, a price that was out of reach for the average consumer. Rates at Vietnamese-owned salons were much lower — often 30% to 50% less. 


The new competition drove down prices industrywide, reducing the cost of a mani-pedi to as little as $20, according to Nails Magazine.


Today, though, prices are on the rise for the salons that have managed to stay in business as owners try to make up for lost business. Manicures are a luxury again.


One Vietnamese American nail salon owner in Santa Monica, who asked to remain anonymous and spoke through a translator, said that when salons were allowed to be open, she only took regular clientele and determined prices on a case-by-case basis. When clients could afford it, the owner said she up-charged by 15% to 20% in a bid to stay afloat.


According to Nguyen, before the pandemic, artificial nail offerings such as acrylics and gel polish were the most sought-after — and most profitable — services in Los Angeles. But those services have waned in popularity, because they require customers to return for touch-ups or to get help from a technician if a nail chips or breaks.


Instead, more women are opting for simpler — and cheaper — manicures and pedicures or cuticle buffs. 


A regular mani costs about $20, said Nguyen. A gel mani is about double that price at $40.


“Not only are there less people, but they’re getting services that cost less,” said Lisa Fu, executive director of the California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative.


While restaurants across L.A. experimented with outdoor dining, Nguyen said that wasn’t a viable option for most nail salons.


Over the summer, scorching temperatures and poor air quality from wildfires and car exhaust made it unsafe to work outdoors with flammable chemicals, she said. 


A handful of salons tried attending to clients under tents in Santa Monica because the city had a system in place for it.  


Owners were able to apply online to move their business outdoors on public property and receive approval within a week. “But again, business wasn’t that great,” Nguyen said.


‘Heart-wrenching pictures’


Fred Jones, an attorney with the Professional Beauty Federation of California, said some salon workers have opted to make in-home visits where they can collect under-the-table, tax-free dollars.


Others tried to make a go of things on sidewalks or parking lots outside their stores, he said.


“You’ll see heart-wrenching pictures of women sitting on black hard tarmac in front of their nail salons doing pedicures,” Jones said. 


He has argued that keeping salons open throughout the pandemic would have been safer for everyone, especially because many salons are now equipped with Plexiglass shields and technicians wear protective equipment. 


“It’s much safer to do our beauty services in a disinfected, sanitized salon setting than it is having our technicians go house to house,” Jones said. “We now have the most massive underground, unlicensed activity our industry has ever seen.”


Sky Saca, a longtime Luxe Nail and Spa Boutique client, agreed. 


“With masks on and social distancing, I honestly feel safer (at the salon) than I would going into Walmart or Costco,” she said. 


Meanwhile, others are leaving the industry altogether, with some choosing to take jobs for companies like DoorDash Inc. and Uber Technologies Inc., Fu said.


“People are waiting to get called back into work, but they’re realizing after each week that goes by that it’s not going to happen, so they decide to leave the industry,” Fu said. “They know they have a back-up because they can always renew their license to do nails, but they’re already looking into other gig economies.”


Meanwhile, older salon owners and workers are retiring. “Their kids are saying, ‘You know what, it’s time. Let’s close down,’” Fu said.


Trying to pivot


At Color Camp in West Hollywood, owner Lauren Polino has transitioned away from offering services altogether. She has kept doors closed to customers and turned her salon into a temporary manufacturing hub for the press-on gels that Color Camp sells online.


“Necessity is the mother of invention,” she said. “We had to think of how to pivot and stay relevant with our fanbase. We’re trying to recreate the experience of coming into our salon but doing it at home.”


Polino said that through ecommerce, Color Camp has been able to expand its consumer base.


“Instead of just reaching Los Angeles like before, now we can reach people all over the U.S.,” she said.


Despite the success, online profits haven’t offset losses caused by the pandemic-driven shutdowns and cutbacks. “I wish I could say it has,” Polino said. “But at least we’re not at zero anymore.”


At Luxe, Elghanian is trying to stay positive, too.


“I’ve seen some of our competitors that have closed down during this time, which has been really sad,” she said. “But we’ll just do 

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