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How nail salon workers fell through cracks in US covid relief

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How nail salon workers fell through cracks in US covid relief


All those stresses are adding up. Tony Nguyen, program coordinator at the California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative, says back rent is mounting and jobs are fewer. Older women, in particular, are worried they won’t get called back to work. Others are concerned that they won’t have the option to say no, even if they feel unsafe because they are unvaccinated.

“[There are] people who are going back to work because they went into massive amounts of debt,” says Prarthana Gurung, campaigns and communications manager for Adhikaar, a nonprofit working with Nepali-speaking nail salon staff in New York. “Who say, ‘I have to go back to work—I have no choice. I have to feed my kids.’”

Safety is not a theoretical concern. “You’ll be there for eight or 10 hours, working,” says Nguyen. “Some of the customers don’t like to wear their masks.”

He says these painful choices also affect owners, who may be forced to close their doors. 

“They don’t see the future,” he says.

Barriers to accessing aid

When nail salons were closed, most workers lost even the option to risk illness for a paycheck. “Immediately once lockdown happened, you had an entire industry go [to] 100% unemployment,” Gurung says. 

Some workers qualified for government covid aid, but first they had to access a website and sign up online. Those kinds of tasks were “near impossible” for some nail technicians in New York, Gurung says, because of limited literacy and digital skills, or because they speak languages that are less common in the US. Adhikaar serves workers from Nepal, Tibet, India, and elsewhere. 

“There was a really big gap in terms of information,” Gurung says, “and people weren’t getting resources on time, or weren’t realizing what benefits that they could get.”

Precarious immigration status has made financial support even harder to tap into. Many New York nail salon workers are undocumented in the US, meaning they don’t qualify for stimulus checks, unemployment insurance, and other aid. The NY Nail Salon Workers Association, part of the union Workers United, surveyed over 1,000 members, most of them Latina, and found that more than 81% said they were excluded from government help during the pandemic. 

Low priority

Nail salon technicians, along with other personal care workers like those in barbershops and beauty salons, have spent months working in person, their faces often just inches from clients. Nevertheless, they weren’t prioritized for vaccines in New York, unlike grocery store workers, delivery drivers, or even the nonprofit employees who help provide services to nail salon workers. Many are just now becoming eligible as appointments open to more age groups.

But even with expanded eligibility, getting the doses to nail salon workers remains a challenge because of language barriers, technical hurdles, and more.

“In Nepali culture, we talk about the third eye opening. There’s a level of consciousness raising that really happened in the last nine months to a year.”

Prarthana Gurung, campaigns and communications manager for Adhikaar

“Getting our communities vaccinated is going to require a lot of effort, organization, and education,” Luis Gomez, organizing director of the Workers United NY/NJ Joint Board, which commissioned the study on nail salon worker infections, said in an email. “We need more local vaccination sites in the hardest-hit communities, direct outreach in peoples’ native languages, support around the vaccine appointment process, and meaningful education to combat vaccine misinformation.”

Despite promises of widespread availability, vaccines have been notoriously hard to come by for many in the US, especially for working-class people of color. Even though the share of white, Black, and Latino people wanting to get shots is similar, disparities in vaccination rates persist.

That gap urgently needs closing to prevent more serious illness and death. Araceli, who is a member of the Nail Salon Workers Association, is a single mother of two boys who rely on her income. Getting vaccinated would mean having a little more security and control over whether her job could jeopardize her life.

“As workers, we deserve to be considered ‘essential’ because we go to work just like any other person,” she says.

How workers are moving forward

To address these issues, New York lawmakers are hammering out the details of the Excluded Workers Fund, an ambitious plan that would provide unemployment benefits to those who didn’t previously qualify. Some workers are currently on a hunger strike, calling for state lawmakers to commit $3.5 billion to the fund. And advocates say nail industry workers could be better protected beyond the pandemic through legislation like the NY Hero Act and the Nail Salon Accountability Act.



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Donald ’67, SM ’69, and Glenda Mattes

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Donald ’67, SM ’69, and Glenda Mattes


Don Mattes started giving to the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory at MIT before he himself was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Since his death in 2020, his wife, Glenda, has carried forward Don’s passion for its work. “My wish is that no one ever has to go through the horrors of Alzheimer’s disease ever again,” Glenda says. The Matteses have also supported the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at MIT.

Legacy sparks hope. An early key employee of Andover Controls who later ran the company’s European operations, Don visited six continents with Glenda during their 30-year marriage—often to ski or bicycle. “Don’s was a life well lived, just too short,” Glenda says. The couple made provisions in their estate plan to support the Picower Institute. After Don died, Glenda made a gift to MIT of real estate that established both endowed and current-use funds there to support research on Alzheimer’s, dementia, and other neurodegenerative diseases. Glenda is a cancer survivor, and the gift also endowed a fund in the couple’s name at the Koch Institute.

Great discoveries being made at MIT: “Don always said the best thing he got from MIT was being taught how to think,” Glenda says. “MIT is an amazing place. Picower Institute director Li-Huei Tsai and her team are doing more than looking for a treatment for Alzheimer’s. They’re looking for the root cause of the disease. I am also fascinated with the Koch’s melding of engineering and biology. The chances they are going to solve the cancer issue someday are very high.” 

Help MIT build a better world.
For more information, contact Amy Goldman: (617) 253-4082;  goldmana@mit.edu. Or visit giving.mit.edu/planned-giving.

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Investing in women pays off

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Investing in women pays off


“Starting a business is a privilege,” says Burton O’Toole, who worked at various startups before launching and later selling AdMass, her own marketing technology company. The company gave her access to the HearstLab program in 2016, but she soon discovered that she preferred the investment aspect and became a vice president at HearstLab a year later. “To empower some of the smartest women to do what they love is great,” she says. But in addition to rooting for women, Burton O’Toole loves the work because it’s a great market opportunity. 

“Research shows female-led teams see two and a half times higher returns compared to male-led teams,” she says, adding that women and people of color tend to build more diverse teams and therefore benefit from varied viewpoints and perspectives. She also explains that companies with women on their founding teams are likely to get acquired or go public sooner. “Despite results like this, just 2.3% of venture capital funding goes to teams founded by women. It’s still amazing to me that more investors aren’t taking this data more seriously,” she says. 

Burton O’Toole—who earned a BS from Duke in 2007 before getting an MS and PhD from MIT, all in mechanical engineering—has been a “data nerd” since she can remember. In high school she wanted to become an actuary. “Ten years ago, I never could have imagined this work; I like the idea of doing something in 10 more years I couldn’t imagine now,” she says. 

When starting a business, Burton O’Toole says, “women tend to want all their ducks in a row before they act. They say, ‘I’ll do it when I get this promotion, have enough money, finish this project.’ But there’s only one good way. Make the jump.”

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Preparing for disasters, before it’s too late

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Preparing for disasters, before it’s too late


All too often, the work of developing global disaster and climate resiliency happens when disaster—such as a hurricane, earthquake, or tsunami—has already ravaged entire cities and torn communities apart. But Elizabeth Petheo, MBA ’14, says that recently her work has been focused on preparedness. 

It’s hard to get attention for preparedness efforts, explains Petheo, a principal at Miyamoto International, an engineering and disaster risk reduction consulting firm. “You can always get a lot of attention when there’s a disaster event, but at that point it’s too late,” she adds. 

Petheo leads the firm’s projects and partnerships in the Asia-Pacific region and advises globally on international development and humanitarian assistance. She also works on preparedness in the Asia-Pacific region with the United States Agency for International Development. 

“We’re doing programming on the engagement of the private sector in disaster risk management in Indonesia, which is a very disaster-prone country,” she says. “Smaller and medium-sized businesses are important contributors to job creation and economic development. When they go down, the impact on lives, livelihoods, and the community’s ability to respond and recover effectively is extreme. We work to strengthen their own understanding of their risk and that of their surrounding community, lead them through an action-planning process to build resilience, and link that with larger policy initiatives at the national level.”

Petheo came to MIT with international leadership experience, having managed high-profile global development and risk mitigation initiatives at the World Bank in Washington, DC, as well as with US government agencies and international organizations leading major global humanitarian responses and teams in Sri Lanka and Haiti. But she says her time at Sloan helped her become prepared for this next phase in her career. “Sloan was the experience that put all the pieces together,” she says.

Petheo has maintained strong connections with MIT. In 2018, she received the Margaret L.A. MacVicar ’65, ScD ’67, Award in recognition of her role starting and leading the MIT Sloan Club in Washington, DC, and her work as an inaugural member of the Graduate Alumni Council (GAC). She is also a member of the Friends of the MIT Priscilla King Gray Public Service Center.

“I believe deeply in the power and impact of the Institute’s work and people,” she says. “The moment I graduated, my thought process was, ‘How can I give back, and how can I continue to strengthen the experience of those who will come after me?’”

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