Illustration by Steven Mach

Illustration by Steven Mach

Karen Lessler thought that July 4, 1991, would be an Independence Day to remember. A bill that would require New York state nail technicians to be licensed had finally passed through the state Senate and awaited a final vote in the Assembly. But at six o’clock in the morning she was awakened by a call from Sen. Guy Velella’s office and was informed that the bill hadn’t been read and that it would be several more months before it had another chance to be heard. For Lessler, it was only the latest frustration in a four-year personal crusade to regulate the activities of New York nail technicians.

Although New York is home to an estimated 25,000 nail technicians (the third largest concentration in the country), there are no licensing requirements as to where, how, and under what conditions someone can do nails. Efforts to impose educational and licensing requirements on nail technicians have failed in the past for a variety of reasons.

Lessler, who heads the National Nail Technicians Group, admits that the bill she supports (Bill #3306, sponsored by Sen. Guy Velella) has languished in the past partly due to her inexperience in legislative and lobbying matters, as well as much behind-the-scenes politicking.

There is a second bill (#2493, sponsored by Sen. Roy Goodman and supported by the New York State Cosmetology Association and several other salon professional associations) that will also require licensing for nail technicians, although the bill covers hairstyling and esthetics as well as nail care.

This bill also awaits another vote when legislators reconvene and vote in January.

Both bills amend a 1946 law regulating the cosmetology arts. “This is updating ancient legislation from 1946 and bringing it into the ’90s,” says Tim Sheridan, a lobbyist based in Albany who was hired to win favor for the Goodman bill. While the Velella bill seeks to amend that law only as it applies to the practice of nail care, the Goodman bill also covers hair-styling, cosmetology, and esthetics. The NNTG, while it has concentrated its support on the Velella bill, says that it would be happy with the passage of either bill, Says Lessler, “It’s been so long that I could live with either. At least both would license nail technicians.”

However, the New York State Beauty School Association, which has been very active in this issue for years, does not support the Goodman bill. Says executive director Bob Johnson, “We need to have a separate nail bill.”

The Goodman bill is supported by a large contingent of industry associations, among them the New York State Cosmetology Association (the state affiliate of the NCA), and estheticians and cosmetology associations.

Although she has boon supportive of the Goodman bill, Lessler believes that trying to got those diverse associations to agree on every element of the bill may be that bill’s downfall.

However, Rose Leskiw, past president of the New York State Cosmetology Association and legislative chairperson, says that the Goodman bill, because it incorporates all the fields in one business practice law, would provide for “better conformance.”

Unfortunately, neither bill was vot6ed on before the legislature recessed for the summer – a practical setback........but there have also been delays due to the time-consuming fine-tuning of both bills so that they satisfied the necessary assemblypeople, senators, and various associations.

Finally, and not least of all, many years have been spent just trying to convince the state’s powers that be that nail care even requires state legislation.

For Lessler, and many more technicians, legislators, association directors, manufacturers, and concerned citizens, the battle to license New York nail technicians began years before anyone went to Albany.

The Need for Licensing

The expressed purpose of both licensing bills is to protect the consumer. Says Johnson, who, by his estimation, has been involved in this licensing issue for 10 years, “You have nail salons all over the place, and the general public has no protection whatsoever.”

The Velella bill addresses this concern by putting enforcement in the consumers’ hands by requiring nail salons to display a poster outlining correct sanitary procedures that should be followed during nail services. The poster will list a special hotline that clients can call if a salon is not adhering to proper sanitation practices. It also allows the state to impose a fine on a salon that is cited for violation of the sanitary code.

Airing Dirty Laundry

It is a painful irony for licensing supporters that in order to convince their opponents of the need for licensing they must first expose the poor work being done by untrained and uncertified nail technicians, and in doing so perpetuate some long-standing “manicurist myths.” However, although the number of good technicians no doubt outweighs the bad, legislators still needed to see evidence of the danger to the public before considering enacting a licensing law. Says Lessler, “A lot of the legislators didn’t believe there was enough negligence to warrant licensing.”

In order to sway the lawmakers, Lessler compiled a pack age of information that contained evidence of the damage that can be caused by unlicensed technicians. She cited a gross lack of knowledge of proper sanitation procedures. She backed this up with a tape of a news program aired in New York, where a reporter went to several different salons and videotaped technicians who didn’t exercise ; disinfection procedures, including technicians who neglected to disinfect implements before working on the undercover reporter.

She also included in this package reports from a New York dermatologist who treated a patient with such a severe nail infection caused by an unlicensed nail technician that the client lost all her fingernails. “Her nail matrixes were destroyed,” says Lessler.

Admittedly, simply possessing a license does not mean that a technician automatically becomes a conscientious, rule-abiding technician, but it is a fair gauge by which the consumer can evaluate where she wants to take her business. Certainly, there are plenty of licensed technicians who do poor quality work and who do not adhere to a minimum level of disinfection. But in a state that does not require nail technicians to have a license, the potential is great that products will be misused, unhealthy conditions will exist both for workers and for clients, accidents will occur, and that a technician could seriously damage a client’s nails.

Concern for Small Business

Another hurdle that licensing crusaders had to overcome was the fear among some legislators that imposing licensing restrictions on the nail care profession would place a heavy financial burden on small businesspeople and, possibly, even drive them out of business. Explains Sen. Helen Marshall, whose largely Korean constituency was initially opposed to licensing for that very reason.

“When the government steps in, it usually does so with a very large boot.” On behalf of her constituents and other nail technician associations she represented, Marshall lobbied for affordable licensing fees and a reasonable grandfather clause. She also saw that the original bill was translated into Korean so that group of salon professionals could participate in the licensing debate. She says her main concern was that state licensing “not kill the industry.”

Sheridan concurs that much of the initial opposition to the whole idea of licensing was that it was considered an unnecessary government intrusion, an extraneous regulation in an already overregulated state. Sheridan cited dissent from the former chairman of the Ways and Means committee, who was opposed on the basis that licensing was unneeded. The Chairman was later swayed by the compelling evidence brought by Sheridan and other lobbyists that a great deal was at stake.

There were legislators who argued that because manicuring was, historically, a profession primarily entered into by women, that licensing restrictions would put potential businesswomen out of business or discourage them from going into the field in the first place Sen. Marshall concedes that some of the misunderstanding and opposition the bills faced in the early days was due to the fact that the sponsors were mainly men, many of whom did not entirely understand the field.

Some people also felt that the examinations that potential nail technicians would have to take to earn a license would be too difficult for some individuals to pass. Although it was not overtly stated, many people in the nail industry as a whole felt that testing might inhibit recent immigrants, who make up a sizable portion of the nail technician population in New York, from applying for a license. However, both bills do allow for testing in non-English languages, and the fees for both bills have also been set at a very reasonable level (see sidebar for comparison of the two bills). Marshall also says that by virtue of her reputation and her involvement in the issue, she was able to quell the fears of her constituents.

Lessler feels that New York will lose some of its current nail technicians if licensing is instituted, either because some of them cannot pass muster with their technical skills, or because they were never serious to begin with. However, the application and examination process will only serve to ensure that better qualified technicians work on nails and that the consumer is better protected.

“The application will be simple,” says Lessler. “The ones who don’t get themselves licensed were probably never serious about the profession in the first place.”

And, of course, there will be those who continue to circumvent the law once it is enacted. In California, where state licensing requirements are some of the strictest in the nation, there are uncounted hundreds of unlicensed technicians working on nails. And, sadly, the proliferation of technicians there, qualified and otherwise, has led to some of the lowest average service prices in the country.

The Grandfather Clause

A key point in the licensing debate was over the proposed Grandfather Clause, the practice of automatically granting licenses to technicians who have been practicing a certain amount of time. The original grandfather clauses in both bills allowed only technicians who had been doing nails for at least three years to receive a license without being tested. However, after much debate and consideration, both bills were modified.

The Velella bill will grandfather in technicians with one year’s experience, while the Goodman bill requires technicians to have two years’ experience.

Says Sen. Marsha, “If you’ve been doing this business for a year, you know what you’re doing.” Lessler also believes that the original requirement may have been too strict. She says, “We have better schools today than we used to. and technicians are more knowledgeable than 10 years ago.”

The Trials and Tribulations

Anyone who remembers anything about high school civics class knows that getting a bill passed into law is a time-consuming and often confusing process that requires many people (generally of diverse and opposing political points of view) to agree.

Catol Cardell, Sen. Velella’s director of legislative operations, says that part of the reason the bill failed to pass the first year the senator was involved was that it wasn’t written well enough. However, the language of both bills has been fine-tuned, and the bills have been revised. Cardell credits Lessler’s and the NNTG’s involvement with keeping the momentum of the bill going. She commends Lessler, saying, “Karen has been up here doing her homework.”

The Velella bill did face a setback this past year in its route through the Assembly. As the bill was being voted on, Sen. Marshall, its key sponsor, voted for the; Goodman bill instead, Lessler and Cardell believed that Marshal would be casting her vote for the Velella bill, but were; surprised and disappointed when she did not “There was confusion.” explains Marshall, who says that she received conflicting information on which bill was actually up for vote at that time. Marshall maintains that she believed she was voting for the Velella bill, although her vote for the Goodman bill instead helped get Goodman through the Assembly, and left the Velella supporters needing to recruit a new sponsor for next year.

“I feel bad because Guy Velella was the one who approached me about the bill in the first place,” Marshall explains. “In the coming session I think we’re going to have to sit down and smooth this out.”

Although there was disappointment in the Velella camp over the loss of Marshall as a sponsor, Goodman lobbyist Sheridan credits Marshall’s involvement with keeping that bill viable. He says, “This year Helen Marshall became the activist. She put together a strategy of hard work and communication among her colleagues.”

Lessler sums up the course of events this year in a word: “politics,” she says. The loss of this key sponsor left Lessler and her organization discouraged but not without hope. Lessler says she has two potential sponsors who are expected to be onboard soon.

Unfortunately, what ultimately held up passage of licensing this year had nothing to do with licensing at all; it was merely that the legislature was busier with other issues of the state, namely major budget problems. The licensing bills had made the rounds through committees and were amended, but due to more pressing legislative matters, they did not make it back on the calendar for the final reading that would have allowed either to be voted into law.

Says Sheridan, “Frankly, I think the Senate just got so bogged down in the New York tax package that they just did not have time to move it [the bill] onto the calendar for action. But we’re hoping to move the bill as soon as the legislature reconvenes.”

On behalf of the Velella bill, Cardell says that although Sen. Velella has many responsibilities as chair of the state insurance committee, nail technician licensing will be “one of his priorities” this year.

Is the End in Sight?

When asked what she thought her chances for success were when the Assembly reconvenes, Lessler says, “I think we’ve got a 99% chance that this will pass by January 1992.” Carol Cardell puts the odds slightly less, but perhaps she well understands the machinations of state politics and has a politician’s caution. Says Cardell, “If we can get it read, I think we’ve got a 50/50 chance.”

Leskiw sees passage of the Goodman bill “very definitely in January. I don’t see any further problems regarding fine-tuning or terminology.”

Lessler has been down this road before and is no stranger to disappointment, but feels very strongly that, one bill or the other, 1992 is the year for licensing in New York. She is often asked how she maintains the momentum to keep up such a long struggle, and she calmly responds, “My husband says to me, ‘You’re fighting this like you’re fighting a disease.’ But that’s how I feel. Two years ago I was too intimidated to talk to Senators, but now I feel comfortable saying, ‘If you want our vote, you get this bill through.’”

With that sort of determination, July 4, 1992, will be an Independence Day that all professional nail technicians will remember.

The (Other) Licensing Holdouts

New York is not alone in its resistance to licensing nail technicians. At press time five other states have no licensing requirements for nail technicians. Here is a look at those states and what you can do to get involved:

Alaska: No active movement; however, if you are interested in getting involved, contact the legislative chairperson for the Alaska Cosmetology Association.

Connecticut: Activists are still in the early stages of gathering information for the legislative battle. The National Nail Technicians Group (NNTG) is participating in gathering information for the eventual legislative battle, which president Karen Lessler expects can take up to two years. If you are interested in supporting the movement in Connecticut, contact either the NNTG at (516) 366-4610 or the state’s cosmetology association legislative chairperson.

Illinois: At press time, the bill was on the governor’s desk awaiting a signature. The Chicago Cosmetologists Association (CCA) has been very active in Illinois. Says Patricia Johnson-Rambo, legislative chairperson of the CCA, “I am expecting to make a presentation to the governor if it [the bill] gets vetoed.” Anyone interested in this state’s licensing battle should contact the CCA at (312) 321-6809.

Nebraska: No active movement. Contact legislative chair of the state cosmetology association.

Utah: No active drive at this time. However, if you are interested, contact legislative chair of the state cosmetology association.

Virginia: An “emergency nail technician regulation” bill took effect on August 1, 1991, effectively licensing this state. All persons with experience or training as a nail technician must apply for examination by October 1, 1991, or they will have to meet additional training requirements.


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