Thousands of jobs in Gilbert hinge on the outcome of a dispute between the Arizona State Board of Cosmetology and a Gilbert salon.
The workers are one-inch long garra rufa and chin chin fish employed at Cindy Vong's LaVie Nails & Spa in Gilbert. While no human would likely ever want to perform their jobs, the fish seem to relish their work sucking the dead skin from people's feet.
At issue is whether the fish, also known as doctor fish, reddish log sucker and nibble fish among other names, present a health hazard to customers at Vong's salon and whether the board will be able to stop the practice.
Officials instructed Vong in January to stop the fish pedicures, saying they violate the board's statutes and rules and may constitute a class one misdemeanor.
Sue Sansom, a board spokeswoman, said the law requires grooming items used on salon clients to be disinfected, and there's no way to disinfect a fish.
"It is our responsibility to insure that clients have a very safe environment and infection control is in place," she said.
Officials will meet with Vong on March 20 to determine what, if any, actions against Vong are necessary. An action by the board can range from dismissal to revocation of license and fines up to $2,000.
Tim Keller, executive director for the Institute for Justice's Arizona Chapter, a libertarian law firm, said his organization is assisting Vong, but hasn't filed a lawsuit over the matter.
"We're waiting to see what the board does with this," he said.
He said the board is overreaching in its authority and application of the law.
"She was having some really great success," he said. "One day somebody from the cosmetology board swung by and noticed this new entrepreneurial endeavor and decided that they didn't know what it was and that they didn't understand it, (and) they decided to shut it down."
Keller said his group reviewed the regulations that the board says Vong is violating, and that they don't apply to fish treatments.
Keller added that the fish aren't giving pedicures and are more meant for entertainment value.
The purpose of the fish treatment, which some describe as feeling like a mild electrical current on the skin, is to smooth the feet and relax the customer.
"It's really ticklish," said Vong, who purchased the fish from China in October.
The practice, popular in numerous countries around the world, has caught on in the United States.
Despite its popularity, more states - most recently Maryland and Florida - are reportedly banning the practice over similar health concerns.
"I don't think it's fair," Vong said.
The fish pedicures have boosted business at LaVie Nails & Spa by 50 percent, Vong said.
"I have customers coming from all over town," she said.
Sansom said other groups have concerns over the way the fish are treated and whether they represent a threat as an invasive species.