Alaska News

Many of Alaska's manicurists could be out of a job by August unless lawmakers act fast on controversial regulations

Inside Marisa's Nail Salon on the Old Seward Highway in Anchorage on Wednesday morning, a half-dozen manicurists from almost as many countries gathered in plush chairs where their clients usually sit for gel nails or acrylics.

They wanted to discuss a matter of urgent importance to their livelihoods: A change in state regulations that they say will put all of them — and hundreds of other Alaska manicurists — out of work by August unless state legislators take action.

The issue is what a manicurist has to do to get a state license. For many years, Alaska has required only a 12-hour course on safety and sanitation to become a nail technician.

A new requirement that manicurists pass a written test to be licensed, and eventually attend 250 hours of class, is an impossible standard for many of the state's roughly 1,000 licensed manicurists, said Marisa Sison, the owner of her eponymous salon. Originally from Vietnam, she's been doing nails in Alaska for 18 years.

"We work seven days a week. English for us is a second language. We try to take the test, but we don't pass," she said Wednesday, surrounded by six women who work with her. "For us, they should grandfather us in under the old rules."

The threat has moved her to activism for the first time. On Sunday, she helped rouse a crowd of over 100 nail salon workers to a packed town hall held by a legislator who has taken up the issue. 

Too lax? 


It all started back in 2015, when the Alaska Board of Barbers and Hairdressers — the state professional licensing board that governs nail technicians — succeeded in enlisting Rep. Lynn Gattis, a Wasilla Republican, in moving a long-standing policy priority through the Legislature.

For years, members of the board had felt that Alaska's licensing standards were too lax, said Glenda Ledford, a Wasilla City Council member, salon and school owner who was then board chair.

The 12-hour education requirement is one of the most minimal anywhere in the country, she said.

"It is safety and sanitation. It teaches you nothing about nails — not about disease, structure of the nail," she said.

More education was necessary to keep up with national standards and to keep consumers safe, she said.

[With Alaska budget woes forcing agency cuts, who's inspecting hair and nail salons?]

But the legislation introduced by Gattis and passed into law had problems. There was nothing ensuring that existing manicurists would be grandfathered in. The board knew that was a problem, Ledford said. 

"What the board intended did not come about," she said. "We don't want to put nobody out of work."

The new law increased the requirements twentyfold. Manicurists would have to pass a written test and take a 250-hour educational course. Manicurists, who often work on commission, said there was no way they could afford the six weeks off and $3,500 cost of the course. Plus there were scarcely any schools offering the classes — just one in Anchorage and one in Wasilla.

The one in Wasilla — Glenda's Salon and Training Center — was owned by Ledford herself. 

Some have since questioned whether Ledford did enough to disclose her own financial interest in the bill.

The training program for nail technicians at Glenda's Salon and Training Center cost $4,000 per class. If every manicurist was required to take the nail technician course, it could mean a lot of money for Ledford's school, said Beverly Harper, an Anchorage social worker and a critic of the bill. 

Ledford said she opened her school years before the legislation and has always been upfront about her status as a business owner.

"Anytime I have testified or did anything I have said I own the school, and I'm the chair of the board but I'm testifying as a professional," Ledford said.

"If I had all that personal financial gain from this, why am I still working behind my chair to make a living?" she said.

'We are all worried'

Another version of the legislation tried to fix the problems that could put manicurists out of work. That bill would grandfather in all the manicurists, allowing them to keep practicing if they had 250 on-the-job hours and could pass a written exam.


But that too has proven complicated and controversial.

Alaska's workforce of manicurists is mostly immigrant women, said Sison. About half are Vietnamese. But in her salon alone, manicurists come from the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Romania, Guatemala and Vietnam. Others are from Thailand, Laos, China and beyond.

Not everyone speaks, reads or writes the four languages the written exam is offered in — English, Spanish, Vietnamese and Korean, Sison said. And the Vietnamese version of the exam uses a dialect incomprehensible to people from some regions of the country. She said she tried to take the test and failed it.

"We are all worried. We don't want to lose our jobs. We need our jobs," she said.

[Anchorage massage therapists dismayed at new city licensing proposal]

For the women who work at Marisa's Nail Salon, the issue is personal. Yulissa Tobar, originally from Guatemala, said many of the manicurists she knows got into work at nail salons because it offers better pay and more flexible conditions than other jobs available for workers who may not speak fluent English.

"We see this as an opportunity," she said. 

Some of them, like Damaris Solis, originally from Puerto Rico, have been manicurists for close to 20 years.


Sison flipped open a textbook to a chapter covering biology and physiology. Why should they have to buy expensive textbooks that cover things like cell mitosis when they've spent thousands of hours on the job practicing their trade?

A series of misunderstandings, filtered through language barriers, have added to the confusion. Some of the women at Marisa's Nail Salon thought they were still required to take the 250-hour course by August — which is not true, according to the board.

Harper, the Anchorage social worker, said she got involved because her daughter-in-law, who is from Vietnam, works as a manicurist. The mess could have been avoided if the Board of Barbers and Hairdressers had done more to listen to the manicurists themselves, said Harper.

"Had the board even reached out to the community — at all — I think it would have been averted," she said.

The newest version of the legislation would turn the clock back to the same requirements that the state has had for more than a decade: 12 hours of education and no written test.

That would get rid of the looming deadline and work could be done to come up with a better long-term solution that allows for more education but doesn't put anybody out of work, said Rep. Matt Claman, an Anchorage Democrat who has been working to find a solution on the issue. He held the recent town hall.

As of Wednesday, the Senate Finance Committee was hearing testimony on the issue, said Sara Perman, who works as an aide to Claman. The goal was to broker a compromise as soon as possible, she said. 

Michelle Theriault Boots

Michelle Theriault Boots is a longtime reporter for the Anchorage Daily News. She focuses on in-depth stories about the intersection of public policy and Alaskans' lives. Before joining the ADN in 2012, she worked at daily newspapers up and down the West Coast and earned a master's degree from the University of Oregon.