Have you ever gone to work knowing you weren’t feeling too great or knew you were sick? I definitely remember at least a handful of times when I’ve gone to work and potentially exposed co-workers to my cold or flu. And I have no doubts that a majority of us have done the same.
But let’s say you worked in a more public setting, like a hospital or restaurant, where illness could spread to a larger population. Would that influence the decision to stay home? At least half of workers in more public settings show up to work sick, according to a recent NPR article. Participants of the poll listed a variety of reasons for showing up to work sick, including a lack of paid time off or concerns over job security. But another reason was inadequate back-up staff. Sick employees didn’t want to overburden their co-workers in their absence.
Now imagine an opposite scenario where employees are at higher risk for illness or injury while at work; where exposure to toxic chemicals is part of the job. Nail salon workers fall into this group and are routinely exposed to such chemicals, resulting in reproductive and developmental issues or cancer. Does an increased risk to health issues have to be a necessity for nail salon workers? Fortunately, not. The California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative (CaHNSC) was established in 2005 to improve the health, safety and rights of this workforce. My interview with Catherine Porter, policy director of the Collaborative, below describes their impact on the industry in California.
Me: How did you end up doing the work that you’re currently doing? Describe your journey to your current role with the CA Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative – why is CaHNSC important to you? Why is it important to customers?
Catherine Porter: I have a great passion for workers’, particularly women workers’, rights and health. As an employment rights attorney, I represented clients in gender and race discrimination claims and also represented teachers in arbitration and layoff hearings. After a breast cancer diagnosis at the age of 40, I decided to work on a policy level to have a greater impact on larger social, legal, and environmental issues such as eliminating the epidemic of cancer and other chronic diseases linked to toxic chemical exposures. I worked in an organization that focused on women with cancer and the environmental links to the disease; at another organization I focused on occupational safety and health, including workplace chemical exposures. I started with the California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative (Collaborative or CaHNSC) in 2008 and now serve as its policy director. Working with the Collaborative represents a natural progression of policy issues for me because we focus on environmental health and safety rights for both workers and women.
The Collaborative is having a positive impact on a vulnerable population of low-wage women workers. On the policy front, we are working to reduce exposures to toxic chemicals that are pervasive in nail salons. We also provide information regarding labor law rights and obligations, and work to ensure this important information is available and accessible to the nail salon community. In California, manicurists are predominately Vietnamese immigrant women of reproductive age. Language can be a barrier to understanding occupational safety and health and labor rights. The Collaborative has sponsored successful legislation that requires California state agencies to provide improved language access for the nail salon and other immigrant communities in California.
The Collaborative has built relationships in the nail salon community by providing trainings on healthier and more fair ways to do business. Our successful advocacy for Healthy Nail Salon Recognition Programs (HNSRPs are now operational in four counties and one city) contribute to a safer and more enjoyable experience for nail salon customers. These local programs acknowledge and support nail salons that use less toxic products and practices in their shops.
For example, nail salons must use products that do not contain the “Toxic Trio” of dibutyl phthalate, toluene, and formaldehyde, all known to cause reproductive and developmental harm or cancer. Salons also must improve their ventilation and participate in trainings about how to avoid the most toxic exposures. According to our survey data, most salon owners that participate in the program say that they and their workers feel healthier and that they have experienced an increase in customers.
Me: The CA HNSC is involved with advocacy efforts – what legislation is realistic in the next few years and what would your ideal legislation look like?
CP: To promote the spread of Healthy Nail Salon Recognition Programs (HNSRPs) across California and beyond the current five jurisdictions, the CaHNSC and Asian Health Services of Oakland (AHS) are currently sponsoring AB 2125 (David Chiu) which requires a state agency to inform local county and city governments across California about HNSRP guidelines, and to conduct activities to improve consumer awareness of these local programs. AB 2125 passed the state Assembly and two Senate policy committees with overwhelming support. It currently awaits consideration in the Senate appropriations committee. One reason AB 2125 has received such large bipartisan support is that it involves an incentive approach to policy change; it calls for rewarding good behavior as opposed to penalizing bad behavior.
However, frequently, a legal prohibition or requirement is necessary and most effective to change behavior, but it is much more difficult to get the necessary support from both sides of the aisle in Sacramento for this kind of policy.
For example, cosmetics are woefully under-regulated as there is no requirement for cosmetic products to undergo pre-market safety testing. Furthermore, manufacturers are not required to list ingredients on the labels of professional cosmetics. And the chemical components of the ingredient known as “fragrance” do not have to be disclosed to consumers.
Ideally, filling these three gaps in cosmetics policy would be a good starting point for some meaningful legislation. In fact, such a measure was introduced in Washington, D.C. by U.S. House Representative Jan Schakowsky (D – 9th). But proposals like this are unlikely to receive enough support given the current political makeup of the Congress and the ongoing influence of the chemical and personal care products industries.
From a wider lens view, other legislation that would positively impact nail salon and other low income women workers include establishing a single payer health system; overturning Citizens United; and a state measure reining in the cost of housing including rental rates.
Me: What inspires you on a daily basis, especially when things get hard?
CP: We have strived to bring the voices of local Vietnamese nail salon workers to policy debates. When I hear their powerful messages as they enthusiastically advocate for safety and health in the workplace, I am reminded of why my Collaborative colleagues and I do this work. This year, during the course of our campaign for AB 2125, many nail salon colleagues and Collaborative member organizations representing the local Vietnamese community participated in lobby days and hearings in Sacramento. It is deeply satisfying to see a largely immigrant community become engaged in the political life of America as a result of the Collaborative’s Leadership Trainings and other education and outreach efforts.
Me: In your opinion, how effective are community outreach efforts like the Healthy Nail, Beauty Salon and Barbershop programs compared to other forms of health education (e.g. presentations, one-on-one, small group, etc.)? Specifically – reaching target audiences where they spend recreational time (in a nail salon or barbershop).
CP: The most effective outreach efforts rest on relationship-building to develop trust and common ground among parties. Our work with the nail salon community and successful implementation of Healthy Nail Salon Recognition Programs (HNSRPs) involve ever stronger ties with nail salon workers and owners. Outreach workers are generally native Vietnamese speakers and understand how to bridge cultural differences. They make in-person visits to salons to get to know the individual workers and owners. Over time, they begin to tell salon owners and technicians about the Collaborative’s work and how to make nail salons healthier for themselves and their customers. Salon workers and owners will be invited to trainings on safety, health, and labor law as well as community gatherings sponsored by the Collaborative. County or city staff responsible for HNSRP implementation also conduct on-site trainings at the salons and convene small group informational meetings at the Collaborative offices. All written materials and spoken word are offered in Vietnamese and English. We also make sure we have fun – community members and Collaborative staff come together regularly to share food and stories about work life in nail salons.
Me: What are the current needs in the Bay Area relate to social determinants of health (i.e. SES, poverty, access to care, transportation, safety, etc.)? Ties to nail salon workers and their need to work at potentially unhealthy workplaces.
CP: The cost of housing and the need for more affordable housing are critical social or physical determinants of health in the San Francisco Bay Area. Two of the ten most expensive residential rental markets are cities in the San Francisco Bay Area—San Francisco and San Jose. The City and County of San Francisco (64%) and Alameda County (60.9%) rank the highest and 5th highest respectively when it comes to fair market rent as a percentage of single mothers’ median income.
Some of the highest rates of women working in low-wage jobs are in San Francisco Bay Area counties. Almost 34% of women in Santa Clara County, almost 27% in Contra Costa County, and approximately 25% in Alameda County, work in low-wage jobs.
This underscores the importance of increased consumer awareness of working conditions in this beauty services industry and the need for nail salon workers and owners to receive fair payment from their customers for services like manicures and pedicures. AB 2125, which would mandate a statewide consumer awareness program, would be an important contribution toward a generally more sustainable nail salon industry.