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‘Many of us have run out of money:’ With reopening months away, the beauty industry struggles to survive

Chris and Margaux Hamrock of Salon Wire hair salon in Zaferia
Chris and Margeaux Hamrock, brother and sister co-owners of Salon Wire in their temporarily closed shop in Long Beach Thursday, May 7, 2020. The Hamrock’s had to close the salon due to the coronavirus pandemic. Photo by Thomas R. Cordova.

Of the many signs waved at recent demonstrations to reopen businesses in California and other states, “I need a haircut” was among the most popular. 

In reality, hair salons in California are likely months away from reopening legally. This is especially true in Los Angeles County, one of the state’s hotspots for coronavirus cases.

Personal care businesses are part of Phase 3 of the governor’s plan for reopening the state’s economy, together with gyms and spas. 

There’s no hard and fast date for this phase to start, but in a recent presentation, State Public Health Officer Dr. Sonia Angell said “we need to know much more about the movement of disease” before the higher risk workplaces in this category would be allowed to reopen. 

To make matters worse for the grooming industry, Gov. Gavin Newsom on Thursday shared that the first community-spread case of coronavirus in California was contracted at a nail salon, a fact that is likely to deepen concerns over the risk of infection at salons. 

For now, salon professionals and small business owners in the beauty industry are out of luck.

Unlike restaurants or retailers, salons’ options for transitioning their business online are limited; you can’t get a haircut delivered, and there’s no takeout option for manicures.

“We’re not in a position, like a restaurant, where we can sell some to-go food,” Chris Hamrock, co-owner of Salon Wire in Zaferia, said. “You don’t just hand us a five dollar bill, get your coffee, and walk out. There’s a lot of time for transmission.”

But despite the total loss of income the industry has suffered for the past two months, and a lack of targeted financial assistance, many have been supportive of the lockdown. 

“I was out advocating for us closing, against my financial well-being, but for the better of the community,” Hamrock said. Still, he said he understands why some local hairdressers are calling for an expedited reopening—or defying current orders by working out of their homes. 

“A lot of people, right now, are acting out of fear. They say they want to work, because they don’t have any money,” he explained. But, he added, “I don’t want them to put themselves and the community at risk, because they feel like it’s the only way they can resolve this situation.”

Despite federal programs in place to help those who have lost their income as a result of the lockdown, many are yet to see any form of relief.

Caitlin Ford and Ursula Goff, two colorists based in St. Louis and Kansas City, formed a new advocacy group, Hands On Professionals, to assess the financial impact of the lockdown on professionals in the industry.

The results of their survey paint a grim picture.

Of the over 600 respondents, 96% said they became effectively unemployed as a result of the crisis. Six out of 10 respondents said they had not received any unemployment at the time of their response. 

“Many of us have run out of money,” Ford said. “People in our industry feel they have no choice but to go back to work, in spite of the risk.”

With some states moving toward reopening, Ford and others fear for their safety and their economic chances of survival.

“Many of the measures the government is imposing for salons and similar businesses greatly reduce our capacity for clients we are allowed to serve each day, which can drastically affect our incomes,” she said. “This cut to income, in addition to the cost of the supplies needed to stay safe, has us questioning if we can keep our heads above water financially.”

Colorists like Ford, for example, will likely be prohibited from working on several clients at a time, greatly reducing their revenue per hour. Meanwhile rent and other overhead costs will remain the same.

Some salons won’t be able to make the numbers work.

Meanwhile, Ford worried, certain unemployment benefits may be phased out once lockdown orders are lifted, especially those created specifically to help independent contractors and other non-employees during the crisis. 

A large portion of workers in the industry are self-employed, meaning they don’t qualify for regular unemployment benefits and are reliant on the new Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) created for those affected by the coronavirus lockdown.

But states have been slow to implement the newly created assistance program. California’s Employment Development Department didn’t start accepting applications for the emergency relief program until last week. 

“Independent workers who are eligible, that’s where most of the trouble has been,” said Steve Sleeper, executive director of the Professional Beauty Association.

Sleeper said 90% of the association’s members on the salon side—as opposed to manufacturing and distribution businesses—work as independent contractors. 

But states’ unemployment agencies were set up to support former employees, not independent contractors and the self-employed. This has led to delays in processing claims for these newly eligible workers. 

“States are behind the curve, that’s just a fact,” Sleeper said.

The prevalence of independent contractors in the industry has made it difficult to organize, said Hamrock. “There’s all these different business models, all these different ways in which people work,” he explained. “There’s no unifying voice.”

But efforts to unify and provide a platform for members of the industry are growing in the midst of the pandemic.

“We’re more unified as a trade organization than ever in the history of the industry,” Sleeper, who has led the Professional Beauty Association since its founding 25 years ago, noted. “That’s something we can leverage, because there’s strength in numbers.”

And it’s not just advocacy. To help businesses survive the forced dry spell, the association has created an emergency relief fund of $1.3 million, funded through donations. All licensed professionals qualify.

“We’ve had folks coming in that have said: this is the first support I’ve received,” Sleeper said. “And it’s the industry helping itself, which I think is a powerful message.”

In a small, local effort, the beauty app Cherie has created a $110,000 fund to help professionals and businesses in Los Angeles County. Clients can nominate and vote for their salon or beautician of choice.

But these efforts alone won’t be sufficient to support an industry that has been completely shut down and is likely to remain at very low capacity for the foreseeable future.

Salons and other businesses that require plenty of hands-on contact to perform their services will have to shift their business models and find new ways of creating revenue. During the lockdown, some have opted to provide beauty tips and tutorials online. 

But, Hamrock said, “if we’re going to shift our industry into an entirely different model, we’re going to need some subsidies for that.” He and other beauticians across the country have started a campaign to advocate for federal funds specifically for the beauty industry. 

“We need some help to keep our businesses alive,” he argued. “Our biggest goal is to create awareness, open a dialogue.”

Without additional support, people’s livelihoods are at stake, livelihoods they have worked years to create. 

“That’s a lot of people’s American dream,” Hamrock said.

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