Everyone seems frustrated with state boards, including the state boards themselves. Salon owners and nail technicians expect boards to regulate salons and enforce the rules consistently. Some people want the boards to regulate everything salon-related, from the chemicals used to the commercial transactions in the salon. Still others want the boards to be consumer watchdogs, going after unlicensed or illegal salons. While the industry’s frustrations are understandable, they reveal common misperceptions about the purpose and function of a state board.

“The board of cosmetology is for protection of consumers,” asserts Sue Sansom, executive director of the Arizona State Board of Cosmetology. “The industry often believes the state board’s job is to look out for the industry, and practitioner think the industry should be driving the decisions,” she continues. “I fear that if state boards and their board members don’t come to a clearer understanding that they are there only to protect consumers then they will go the way of the California State Board [which was eliminated in 1997 and oversight of licensees was transferred to the state’s Department of Consumer Affairs].” Several state board executives echo her sentiment.

“A good example that the California situation brought up is booth rental [people wanted the board to regulate booth rental practices],” Sansom cites. “Why would the board make regulations on something that is not a consumer-protection issue? The problems of access to a salon or who collects the money are not issues for the state board. Boards have a responsibility to remain focused on consumer protection issues.”

At the same time, Sansom emphasizes that state boards are concerned about licensees “The industry is a consumer in relation to infection control and safety,” she comments. “These standards are for the protection of the general public, which includes practitioners.”

Oversight on the Six-O’Clock News

What has been happening in the nail industry is that the consumer news media has taken on the job of policing salons. Says Debra Norton of the Arkansas State Board, “These news reports elevate the consumer’s awareness of health and safety practices. Whereas before customers might be more inclined to keep going back to a salon if they had a good relationship with it, with the heightened awareness they’re more likely to move on to another salon. We don’t see enough of that.”

While such coverage may reflect poorly on the industry, Ed Broyles, executive director of the Florida State Board of Cosmetology, encourages salons to use it to their advantage. “After a new story on MMA, I saw salons in the Orlando area emphasize in their advertising that they use MMA-free products,” he says. “They’re being very proactive and making it a positive for their industry.”

And while these news stories often sensationalize the industry’s problems, there’s more than a grain of truth in their stories, whether it’s on damaged nails, unlicensed nail technicians, or MMA. Granted, discount salons and Vietnamese-owned salons get the most air time, but the entire industry fails in consumers’ eyes.

The industry, however, often lays the blame at the doorstep of the state boards of cosmetology, citing their lack of understanding of the nail industry, sporadic or nonexistent salon inspections, and reprimands and fines that amount to no more than a slap on the wrist in many cases.

“In the 11 years I’ve been open, my salon has never been inspected,” says Gina Marsilii, owner of A Perfect Ten in Wilmington, Del. “And now the state board has eliminated annual inspections because they don’t have the manpower to do them.

“They do investigate complaints, but even when an inspector catches an unlicensed worker, all he can do is issue a violation,” she adds. “If I got caught driving without a license, I would not be able to get back in the car and drive off. Yet nail technicians caught working without a license don’t even stop working while the inspector writes the ticket.”

Marsilii and other salon owners embrace industry licensing and regulation, but they question their value if there’s no bite to the state board’s bark. “It’s just like speeding in a car,” Marsilii notes. “If there’s never a policeman around then people will keep speeding because they know they’re not going to get in trouble.”

Are salon inspections inadequate to weed out the bad salons that jeopardize public health and give the industry a bad name? And why, as the industry’s problems continue to grow — with the increasing use of MMA and swelling numbers of unlicensed nail care practitioners — are state boards cutting back and even eliminating regular salon inspections? We asked state board executives about the challenges they face in trying to regulate the nail industry.

Too Many Salons, Too Few Inspectors

The nail industry has been the fastest-growing segment of the industry for the past several years, and state board executives and inspectors are frustrated with what often appears to be a flagrant disregard for state board rules and regulations on the part of nail technicians and nail salon owners.

“I used to have a big problem with how nail salons operated, and I began to feel we couldn’t regulate them because there was so much unlicensed activity,” says Jeanette Knox, executive director of the Georgia State Board of Cosmetology. On a recent tour of just four salons, Knox and one of her inspectors caught four unlicensed nail technicians and they suspect the numbers would have been higher if they had dropped in during peak hours for the salons.

While nail technicians running out the back door makes for dramatic footage in news reports, the fact is that most unlicensed workers don’t have to resort to that. Many state boards conduct just one or two annual inspections so the likelihood of getting caught is small. Some states, including Georgia, Arizona, and Michigan, inspect only new salons or those with a specific complaint against them. Knox also notes that the peak hours for nail salons — and therefore for catching unlicensed workers — are evenings and weekends, when the state board is closed.

In response to this “When the cat’s away the mice will play” mentality, some state boards, like Nevada and Georgia, are at least considering changing inspector hours or adding part-time inspectors. “In the metro Atlanta area, we’re looking into part-time inspectors to work in the evenings and on weekends,” Knox says.

The investment may be well worth it, as executive director Mary Manna notes that Nevada’s inspectors caught six unlicensed technicians working on clients when — operating on a tip — they visited one salon on a Sunday morning.

In reality, however, most state boards are too understaffed to do any more than they currently do. California, for example, is budgeted for 15 inspectors to cover nearly 36,000 salons, and right now six of those positions are unfilled. In Texas, only two of 24 inspector positions are open, but since 1972 the staff has been cut from a high of 32.

“At that time each district had 400-600 shops, and many districts now have 1,500-1,600 salons, and that doesn’t count independent contractors, who have to be inspected individually,” notes Larry Perkins.

Texas Warns: Don’t Pay the Inspector

Since gaining fining authority earlier this year the Texas State Cosmetology Commission has encountered one unexpected problem: inspector impostors. “We’ve had several impersonators in different parts of the state coming into salons and telling them and they’re getting paid on the spot by check or in cash,” says Larry Perkins. “We’ve done news releases in different areas to warn salons not to give any money to inspectors.”

All salons and licensees are notified via certified mail of the violation and the fine. Upon receipt of the letter, the individual has 20 days to return it with payment or a request for a formal hearing before an administrative law judge. Under no circumstances, says Perkins, should the salon pay the inspector in person: Wait for the letter and return it with your payment.

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