Understanding luxury and our role in the nail salon controversy

Behar Bechukotai 2015
Servants of Whom? How we should treat workers

I became a rabbi in 2004 and this week I proudly celebrate 11 years in the rabbinate, and on a more global level, celebrate the anniversary of 30 years for women as Conservative rabbis. Women have brought many things to the rabbinate-a new perspective-emotional, spiritual, and more. But one, unanticipated consequence, is the ability to sometimes connect with female members (and maybe male members of a congregation in funny places-including nail salons. I will never forget my first year in the rabbinate in Syracuse when I was speaking to a congregant named Lori, and our conversation turned to nail polish colors. While it certainly wasn’t the most profound conversations we had, it was a lovely way to connect and Lori would always say that when she was little, the last conversation she would have imagined having with her rabbi was one about manicures.

Today, I want to continue that conversation but in a different light-not about colors but about treatment of workers. As was reported last week in the NY Times and was shared all over social media, the conditions of many of the people that work in nail salons throughout NYC is atrocious. By day they are rubbing hands with some of the wealthiest women in the world and by night, sleeping 8 to a room, often on crowded cots, with very little take home pay. As someone who admittedly enjoys getting manicures, and often does look for the “special” that is displayed in the window, the results of these under cover investigations gave me pause not only as a woman, but as a Jew.

As we reach the end of the book of Leviticus this Shabbat, and complete the reading of the holiness code, where we are reminded of the dignity of each person, we must look closely not only at the laws of the Torah in theory, but the world in which we live, and ask ourselves, are we living up to our end of the bargain that we signed at Sinai-are we treating people the way we hope to be treated?

In this morning’s double parasha of Behar and Bechukotai, we read “The Children of Israel are my servants.” The rabbis explain this verse and say that the reason it says ‘my servants’ is to imply, “and not servants to servants.” As Rabbi Gordon Tucker explains, in this way, our sages told us that we are meant to be servants of God-a service freely chosen. And conversely, we are not ever to be the chattel slaves, or even the unwilling servants, of other human beings. This is one of the most ringing, enduring, and inspiring lessons of the Hebrew Bible and the Jewish tradition.

In thinking about this parasha, and thinking about Arielle’s moving d’var torah about the ideals on which this great country was founded, I want us to think more closely about the investigation from last week, what we might be able to do here in NYC, and most important, why I believe this is a Jewish issue to begin with.

To recap a bit:

As was shared in the article-

Across the country, countless workers in the nail salon industry, mainly immigrant women, toil in misery and ill health for meager pay, usually with no overtime, abused by employers who show little or no consideration for their safety and well¬being. It is a world of long days and toxic chemicals, where the usual protections of government have failed, at all levels.

For example: On a morning last May, Jing Ren, a 20-year-old who had recently arrived from China, headed to a job at a salon in a Long Island strip mall. Her hair neat and glasses perpetually askew, she clutched her lunch and a packet of nail tools that manicurists must bring from job to job.

Tucked in her pocket was $100 in carefully folded bills for another expense: the fee the salon owner charges each new employee for her job. The deal was the same as it is for beginning manicurists in almost any salon in the New York area. She would work for no wages, subsisting on meager tips, until her boss decided she was skillful enough to merit a wage. It would take nearly three months before her boss paid her. Thirty dollars a day. LET ME SAY THAT AGAIN: $30/DAY.

AS manicures have become a grooming staple for women across the economic spectrum it is reported that there are now more than 17,000 nail salons in the United States, according to census data. The number of salons in New York City alone has more than tripled over a decade and a half to nearly 2,000 in 2012.

Lawsuits filed in New York courts allege a long list of abuses: the salon in East Northport, N.Y., where workers said they were paid just $1.50 an hour during a 66-hour workweek; the Harlem salon that manicurists said charged them for drinking the water, yet on slow days paid them nothing at all; Some workers said they were not only underpaid but also kicked as they sat on pedicure stools, and verbally abused.

When the reporter of this story was asked, what was the greatest lesson you learned?

There is no such thing as a cheap luxury. It’s an oxymoron. The only way that you can have something decadent for a cheap price is by someone being exploited. Your discount manicure is on the back of the person giving it.

This sentence certainly gave me pause.
So what do we do? Do we stop going to these shops? Some would say that that would only hurt the workers more.

First, there are a few things we can look out for:

Interview your manicurist. Sitting across from a nail worker provides an opportunity for dialogue, a chance to ask how much the person doing your nails is paid, or if the worker was made to pay a fee to the employer to start working. If your manicurist is being paid significantly less, the state Department of Labor runs a hotline where tips on suspected wage theft and other violations can be called in anonymously.

Look around. At one shop in SoHo, manicurists do something unusual when they walk in the door: They punch in with a timecard at a machine near the front desk. Such a device, which workers use to clock in and clock out, suggests that their work hours are being tabulated accurately by their employer, and that they are being paid overtime if necessary. But it is not a guarantee. Salons frequently keep a second set of books, according to salon owners, which lists people they are paying under the table.

Pay more. The lower the price of the manicure, the greater the chance the workers are being deprived of wages they are due, according to Nicole Hallett, a lecturer at Yale Law School who has worked on nail salon wage cases. “We, as consumers, expect to have low prices and to be able to go to nail salons often, but the more prices are pushed down, the more employers are cutting costs,” Ms. Hallett said. “They’re cutting costs somewhere, and in many cases it’s coming out of the pockets of the workers themselves.”

What about simply tipping more? This is also a fraught question. Manicurists, of course, depend upon tips, but they say their gratuities are frequently skimmed, or particularly if they are put on a credit card, never delivered. The impulse to make up the deficit in a worker’s pay with more in tips may be a noble one, according to advocates, but does little to solve the root problem, and in fact may perpetuate it.

Next: TRUST YOUR GUT: If you’re uncomfortable enough at a salon or other business that you don’t want to go back, ask yourself why. Seriously consider the possibility that anything you saw that could be evidence of exploitation.

So as I think about this issue, I come back to where I began-the ideas that caring for the worker, embracing the stranger, is rooted so deeply in our tradition that we must not ignore it.

In fact, just a few weeks ago we read:Behar Bechukotai 2015 Hebrew 1
Do not oppress your neighbor and do not rob him. Do not keep the wages of the worker with you until morning.
This is fascinating-one might ask-why do we need to say “don’t oppress your neighbor and don’t rob him?” The answer is found in the next verse…When the torah teaches “Don’t keep the wages of the worker until morning, we realize that that is an example of robbing someone and all of it is under the category of oppression.
Spending money at salons where workers don’t get paid, and in fact, have to pay to work there, is not ethical and we should be better than that.
And further, this applies to everyone-not just people from our city-but those that have come to our community. We read in Deuteronomy:Behar Bechukotai 2015 Hebrew 2
Do not oppress the hired laborer who is poor and needy, whether he is one of your people or one of the sojounrers in your land within your gates. Give him his wages in the daytime, and do not let the sun on him, for he is poor, and his life depends on them, lest he cry out to God about you, for this will be counted as a sin for you.

This raises so many questions-who are our workers to us? What is our responsibility to our workers?

To push this ethical dilemma a bit further we looked at Sefer hayira where we read “Be careful not to afflict a living creature who is created in God’s image. If you want to hire workers, and you find that they are poor, they should become like poor members of your household, for whom you are responsible. You should not disgrace them, for you are commanded to behave respectfully toward them and pay their wages.

So how do we do that-by being conscious of where we are and how we are indulging in luxury. It doesn’t mean don’t enjoy. It doesn’t mean don’t treat yourself.

But, as was written this week, in response to the article in the times, “In an industry that forces one woman’s chronic pain to subsidize the momentary glamour of another, maybe that brief touch during a modest cosmetic ritual could reveal a shared labor and health consciousness: In the city’s struggle for beauty, everybody’s troubles go hand in hand.”

Let us commit together to raising people up so that all of us can stand proudly, and beautifully, together.

Shabbat shalom.