A woman walked into a Twin Falls salon one day in early July 2016, hoping for a manicure and shellac. She ended up at her doctor’s office, being told she would probably lose all her fingernails.

The Idaho Board of Cosmetology fined the salon — Fashion Nails & Spa — $750 and placed its license on probation for two years. It became one of hundreds of salons that have been disciplined by the state in recent years.

The state board issued about $34,000 in fines to 49 salons in Idaho during its latest round of disciplinary actions in October. (The board issues disciplinary actions every four months.)

The Twin Falls customer — identified only by her initials in state records — saw some worrisome things as she sat for her manicure at Fashion Nails & Spa. The nail technicians were reusing tools, passing them between pedicure and manicure customers without cleaning them, and the customer’s manicure station had someone else’s nail clippings on it.

The salon employee cut the woman three times during the manicure, causing both her hands to bleed. Instead of cleaning the wounds, the employee simply continued the manicure, state documents say.

Five days after her salon visit, the woman’s fingers had become swollen and red and were cracked and bleeding. The pain was so severe that she went to her doctor, who diagnosed her with a bacterial and fungal infection and prescribed a week’s worth of oral antifungal drugs.

The salon fired that woman’s nail technician when it learned of the incident. But when the Idaho Bureau of Occupational Licenses sent an inspector out to examine Fashion Nails & Spa, the inspector found 15 sanitation violations. By the end of the month, the salon had passed a re-inspection.

A message left with Fashion Nails was not returned.

Behind the Scenes

Merrilyn Cleland, a Meridian cosmetologist and member of the state board, says the main point of licensing is “protection of the public.”

A licensed nail technician, esthetician, hair cutter or cosmetologist has the training to recognize a fungal infection or a skin problem, for example. Customers “come in with disease and with infection problems they’re not aware of,” she said.

Cosmetologists can let them know they might want to see a medical professional, and take precautions to keep the next customer from contracting it, she said. If they don’t, their license subjects them to punishment, up to and including revocation.

The IBOL has four inspectors assigned to oversight of salons and individual cosmetologists, as well as cosmetology schools. Most of their work involves inspecting Idaho’s cosmetology shops, each of which they try to visit once a year, said Julie Eavenson, administrative support manager for IBOL.

But the cosmetology board isn’t IBOL’s only customer. It has to serve 29 regulatory boards and one commission — providing administrative, investigative, fiscal and legal services. Those occupations range from massage therapists to driving schools, social workers to court reporters, denturists to athletic agents.

And some of the inspections are challenging. An IBOL inspector visited TT Nail Spa in Boise in late July 2015, after the board got a complaint about unlicensed nail technicians. When the inspector arrived at the salon near the Federal Way Fred Meyer, “at least seven individuals” including the salon’s owner, Tuan Ha, were doing pedicures on seven customers.

The inspector identified himself and said why he was there. “Mr. Ha spoke to the workers … in a language other than English,” the state’s disciplinary action said. Ha’s native language is Vietnamese, the document said.

“Immediately after Mr. Ha spoke to the workers in a non-English language, three individuals who had been providing pedicure services to customers … quickly departed the building [within 30 seconds] — one out the front door and two out the back door,” the document said.

Ha turned away and didn’t answer when the inspector asked him to identify the people who’d just left the salon.

Later, Ha went before a state-appointed hearing officer to argue his side. He testified that the people he’d spoken to in Vietnamese were customers, but he didn’t explain why he avoided questions about their identities, nor disclose what he told them before they left, the hearing officer said.

“At the hearing, it was apparent Mr. Ha possessed at least a basic understanding of English,” the hearing officer said. “It appears that during the inspection Mr. Ha used the language ‘barrier’ as a tool to avoid answering [the inspector’s] questions.”

The hearing officer determined that Ha’s explanations weren’t credible and that he just didn’t want to get caught with unlicensed workers. The board agreed and sanctioned him with a $1,000 fine and two years’ probation.

The Statesman reached Ha by phone, but he hung up before a reporter could ask him questions about the inspection.

How hard is it to meet standards?

While hundreds of salons have been disciplined over the years, many manage to keep a clean record.

Jason Bowman and his wife have owned local Sport Clips salons for almost 12 years.

They currently employ 85 stylists across eight different shops and are building another in Twin Falls.

Sport Clips store managers have to keep track of 85 license deadlines every year, Bowman noted. Only once has the company been cited for employing a stylist with an expired license, according to state records — at an existing Sport Clips the couple had just bought from another franchisee. The renewal got lost in the post-acquisition shuffle, Bowman said.

Bowman said the company does its own quarterly inspections, to make sure salons are in compliance with all the rules. Store managers also use calendars to track license dates so they don’t forget to renew.

“That’s actually not that hard; we’ve never failed those sorts of inspections,” Bowman said of sanitation checks. “I think if you have a relatively new, modern store, and you’re vacuuming and your stylists are making sure they’re following sanitation [practices such as] using barbicide and spraying their clippers,” it is easier to pass inspections.

“I can see if you’re on a shoestring budget, and you don’t have an architect design your place, and you’re trying to fit in a few chairs and just trying to cut some hair … that’s when they probably run into problems,” he said.

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And unlike a nail salon or a full-service spa, Sport Clips doesn’t have to worry about potential health-and-safety minefields like hair-color chemicals, waxing and pedicure tubs.

‘Contact the Board’

It’s impossible for inspectors to catch every errant salon in the state, every time. That’s why consumer complaints can be crucial to enforcing the law.

Cleland says she knows firsthand that consumers don’t always report unclean or unsafe salons. Many people just don’t go back, or they leave a bad review on Yelp. She wishes they would call the board to report the problem.

“I have, in my own chair, I’ve had five people” who’ve told her about bad experiences at other salons, Cleland said. “[And] they just don’t go to the board. They don’t turn it in.”

The IBOL received 14 health-related complaints about salons in the past year.

The overwhelming majority of cosmetology violations are for people and businesses with an expired license, or no license at all. It’s not hard to renew a license. Most of them cost $10 or $15, and can be renewed online and processed within a day.

But several local salons have repeatedly gotten in trouble for lapsed or nonexistent licenses.

One salon was Brow Spa 24, which opened in the Boise Towne Square mall several years ago and has since relocated within the mall and changed its name to Brow 4 U. For a while, the business also had a Nampa location.

The Boise salon was disciplined four times between May 2012 and June 2017. The now-closed Nampa shop was disciplined twice. The board found that in applying for a new license, owner Rajendra Hyoju falsely claimed the business had never been disciplined.

Finally, the board revoked Brow Spa 24’s license for its Boise store, including any potential renewal rights. Hyoju’s wife is listed as the owner of the renamed salon, Brow 4 U.

Hyoju told the Statesman that he hired unlicensed employees because they were the only people skilled in his salon’s specialty: eyebrow threading. He said it’s hard to find any licensed cosmetologists who know how to do threading, as it isn’t taught in local schools as part of the cosmetology curriculum.

“We need a lot of employees,” he said. “How are they going to get a license in eyebrow threading?”

Hyoju said he feels like state regulators “always try to give us a hard time. … Sometimes they do a fine, sometimes they do a different scenario,” he said. “We’ve been treated like an animal.”

He and his wife decided to rename their Boise salon because it had been closed so many times due to licensure actions, and had “a very bad reputation,” he said. “This is fresh, we are maintaining it well. … We are giving a very good environment there.”

His wife now works in the Brow 4 U store, he said — along with two licensed cosmetologists.

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