When Santa Clara County lifted some COVID-19 restrictions on nail salons and barber shops in late summer of last year, Louie Pham thought she could finally get back to work.
Pham, the owner of Orchid Nail Lounge, said she was eager to come back after months of no work. The industry is a cornerstone of the Vietnamese community in the South Bay, providing stable jobs to refugees and immigrants who might not speak English.
On the day Pham’s shop reopened at reduced capacity in July 2020, hundreds of appointments poured in as congratulatory messages and texts flooded her phone, Pham told San José Spotlight.
But the high didn’t last long. The following months proved to be a challenge many shops weren’t prepared for. Now, nail salons across Silicon Valley that survived the prolonged shutdown are barely hanging on as they struggle to hire and retain workers while the price of supplies continues to surge, owners say.
“We got everything working against us,” Pham said. “We’re really struggling, and that’s across the board.”
Keeping the lights on
Prior to the pandemic and the months-long shutdown, Christina Kim Tran, owner of JJ Nail Care in Willow Glen, said she only took appointments from several loyal customers a week.
Now, with half her staff gone, Tran comes in six days a week to make ends meet.
“It’s been hard, and I think shop owners have suffered the most,” Tran told San José Spotlight, adding that she knows some owners are considering selling their businesses because of the lack of workers.
A high turnover rate in the nail industry is not uncommon, Tran said, but the pandemic—and the challenges it brings—exacerbates the longstanding labor issue in the area.
When the pandemic forced nail salons in the South Bay to shutter last year, it put thousands of nail technicians—the majority of whom are Vietnamese women—out of work.
Many of these workers left San Jose and its neighboring cities to seek more stable work in Texas or Florida—two states that had looser guidelines and shorter shutdowns than California, Pham said.
“I tried the best I can, but there was time where nobody was here to help me,” Pham said of her shop in Santa Clara, which still adheres to the safeguards implemented last year. “I had to sleep in the back of my RV instead of going home so I have enough time to set up the shop the next day.”
Some employees never went back to work out of fear of getting COVID-19 and infecting their children, who are still not eligible for vaccines, shop owners say. But work is also slow, as clients are wary of sitting indoors for more than an hour at a time amid rising concerns about the Delta variant.
“The pandemic has made things different now,” said Tina Le, owner of Nail Elegance in Willow Glen. “We’re hanging in there… but everyone is getting limited hours.”
With unstable work, shop owners say many nail technicians opted for unemployment benefits, and some couldn’t find childcare to resume working.
Tran said she thought of offering discounts to attract more clients, but the incentive is not sustainable.
“The price of our supplies (is) going up,” she said. “In some cases, they’re double what we used to pay.”
Pham anticipates the costs of supplies will continue to surge, as many supply sources are in lockdown in Vietnam and not shipping out products.
“Because of that, I had to raise my price by $5 (per service),” Pham said. “I lost some customers over it, but what else can I do?”
Long road to recovery
Blossom Nail Spa shut down both of its locations for roughly nine months last year out of safety concerns, owner Linda Do said.
“That’s a long time,” she told San José Spotlight. “Things are looking better, but we’re not recovering yet.”
Do said her salons still follow all the safety protocols implemented last year, and all workers are vaccinated.
“We don’t want to risk anything,” she said, adding that nail salon owners had to get creative on how to keep their businesses open while protecting workers.
Not all shops were lucky enough to survive the months-long flip-flop in health orders. Pham said she knows of at least five salons near her that closed down for good during the pandemic.
Nail workers faced unemployment at the onset of the pandemic, and were then tasked with working outdoors in the heat amidst wildfire smoke as the state and county walked back restrictions.
“Every time they flip-flopped, it hurt us,” Pham said. “We were the first to shut down, and the last to be supported.”
Some nail salons took out loans to weather the income loss, but it only took “one bump in the road” for them to be out of business, Pham said. Her shop is still running on a “skeleton crew,” with her working 10 to 12 hours a day.
“Maybe two years from now, we’ll recover,” she said. “I just don’t know.”