Hair and nail salons lost an arm of oversight when the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation stopped inspecting them last summer as a result of state budget cuts.
That's left the Board of Barbers and Hairdressers -- the state entity overseeing licensing and regulations for nail and hair salons in Alaska -- with the job of making sure the shops meet the health and safety regulations designed to protect consumers and salon workers from disease and infection.
And it still isn't sure how to do it.
"As a board we are still working on this, and the division (of corporations, business and professional licensing) is working on it," said Board Chair Glenda Ledford. "It's not like we said, 'oh well,' because we realize we have a problem."
The board oversees over 5,000 licensees who work with hair, nails, tattooing and body piercing. The board mostly deals with issues related to licensing and training of salon workers.
The Department of Environmental Conservation, the state agency charged with monitoring everything from food safety to air quality and chemical spill responses, enforced those health and safety regulations until last July.
But the Food Safety and Sanitation Program, which conducted nail and hair salon inspections, cut $860,000 from its budget for fiscal year 2016, which began in July. That meant a loss of eight staff -- a mix of filled and unfilled positions -- according to program manager Kimberly Stryker. The cut meant "essentially discontinuing" hair and nail salon oversight, she said.
Now DEC health inspectors no longer check hair and nail salons. The program still maintains a website that lists the regulations and other resources, but notes that it does so only as a courtesy.
Now the Division of Corporations, Business and Professional Licensing is in charge of making sure hair and nail salons are following procedures. But the licensing office has limited power to enforce DEC regulations on consumer health and safety, according to Sara Chambers, operations manager for the division.
She said the division is working with the Board of Barbers and Hairdressers to figure out what to do. The board plans to address the lack of oversight at its next meeting in January.
"We're treading cautiously and slowly, gathering information, responding to complaints, being responsive and being proactive in educating shop and school applicants," Chambers said.
Even before the DEC stopped monitoring nail and hair salons, its oversight was minimal.
From 1995 to earlier this year, the DEC has overseen the opening inspections of salons and responded to health and safety complaints as well as a variety of clerical issues -- like maintaining facility files and communicating objections for initial salon licenses.? But routine annual inspections have never been a requirement for Alaska hair and nail salons.
Anchorage is the only local government that regulates hair and nail salons, and the municipality is continuing to do inspections, according to a spokeswoman with the Department of Health and Human Services. Like DEC, they only check facilities when they open and if there are complaints.
Now the state asks that salons outside of Anchorage "self-certify," according to Chambers. Salons must submit plans for how they intend to follow health and safety requirements, but there's no required follow-up inspection to make sure businesses are doing so.
Ledford, owner of Glenda's Salon and Training Center in Wasilla, said that's the best option the board has while it considers how to handle the situation. Salons still have to open, she added, and shouldn't be shut down simply because the state doesn't have the resources to follow regulations.
Who handles complaints?
Licensing still takes in complaints, but an Alaska Dispatch News review found there weren't many lodged against hair and nail salons in Alaska. According to documents, there were only six licensing complaints at the state level for the 12 months ending June 30. There were 80 "intakes" during that period, where people called to report a violation. Of those, 58 warranted investigations.
DEC had five health- and sanitation-related complaints in 2014, all of which were resolved, according to Stryker. There were no complaints in 2015.
According to a spokeswoman with the Anchorage Department of Health and Human Services, there have been no nail or hair salon complaints since February 2014.
But that's not to say hair and nail salons operate without criticism. A cursory look at Yelp, a website that includes customer reviews, shows that reports of infections and cuts are not uncommon. While the reviews tend to be positive, it's hard miss things like mentions of bleeding cuticles, infected toenails or reports of fungus-infected feet.
Chambers said that while "iron-clad" clarity is lacking on which agency oversees what regulations, her agency takes every complaint seriously.
"(Licensing personnel) and DEC are both committed to public safety, and where there is a consumer who has a complaint, if they contact DEC or if they contact us, we'll follow through with it and more than likely it will be a partnership -- a joint effort -- in pursuing the complaint and determining how far it should go in the process," she said.
So should the public be concerned?
"As a salon owner, as a school owner, not as a state board member, the responsibility of the public falls on my shoulders," Ledford said. "Whether or not everybody else feels that way, I don't know, I couldn't tell you."
The Alaska Legislature passed a bill this year increasing the amount of education needed for manicurists to become licensed in Alaska. It upped the total training hours needed from 12 to 250. Instead of only six hours of instruction on health and safety, workers will be mandated to take 45 during their coursework.
It goes into effect in January. Current manicurists will have until 2017 to comply.
The change was a long time coming, according to Ledford, who said the board worked for eight years to get the law updated.
Rep. Lynn Gattis, R-Wasilla, sponsored the legislation. Gattis, who said she gets her nails done regularly, said she was shocked to learn of the level of education manicurists received. She said she was particularly concerned about workers interacting with people who had health conditions or weakened immune systems.
She was the legal guardian for her diabetic father-in-law, who had difficulty maintaining his feet, she said -- he could have suffered from serious complications if a manicurist clipped his cuticle and caused an infection.
"It had nothing to do with fingernail polish or prettiness," Gattis said.
Gattis said she doesn't want businesses to be too overburdened with regulations, but she acknowledged that more could be done to improve safety.
She declined to say if she would introduce legislation next to year to deal with the lack of oversight, but wasn't ruling it out. She said any new laws would come with guidance from the Board of Barbers and Hairdressers.
"I'm not going to put out what I think we should do until the bill comes out," she said. "But yes, there does need to be changes, and it relates to the health and safety of our citizens and their expectations."