I write as a 17-year veteran in the cosmetology industry. As with many industries, the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is devastating for us. Soon, many of my fellow industry members and I will be pushed past the breaking point.
We understand the need for drastic public response, and we take the threat of the virus seriously.
We also need to work and want to work when the time is right and we can do it safely.
My business partners and I opened a salon eight years ago in the Cathedral Hill neighborhood in St. Paul. After working as employees for a chain salon for nine years, we decided to open up our own salon. Achieve the American dream.
The business structure is set up as a rental salon. That is, the four of us lease a commercial space, maintain that space and set up all of the elements needed to successfully run a professional salon environment. We lease individual chairs out to stylists. They are independent contractors. They run their own individual businesses. They are not W2 employees. They are separate from our business. However, we as salon owners carry a huge financial responsibility when it comes to our lease agreement, bills and inventory. Over the years, our small business has been successful because we work long hours and run a good business. Our renters like working at Urban Village and our clients love to patronize our salon.
Even in this mandatory shutdown, we have continued to do the right thing. We pay our rent and pay our bills. We have discounted our rent to our stylists and offered multiple free weeks. We were lucky to have several months in reserves as per best-practice, but, as this has now gone on for many weeks, our reserves are nearly gone. As will likely be our business which we have worked so hard to build.
I am deeply concerned about our rights in our industry right now, especially as independent contractors. Because of this business structure we have not qualified for much of the government relief that has been available to employers/employees. We have been out of work for six weeks and have not been eligible for unemployment relief. We have not been granted rent relief. We have not heard back about the small-business relief packages, many of which we are not likely eligible for. We hear that Shake Shack received millions of dollars, arent they still open for takeout? We are small, and we may not make anyone rich, but we are still important.
I have been continuously employed for the last 25 years, since I turned 16. I have paid my taxes and done everything I was supposed to do. I was forced to close my business over a month ago. I filed for unemployment and was first told I was ineligible, and now am told I have been approved for $0 a week, which is exactly the income I have received since I have been not allowed to work. I have done everything right and asked of me yet I have not received a dime since the state shut down my business. I have two young children at home to provide for and, at this time, am unsure if and when I might have any type of income, either from work or unemployment. I have sat on the phone on hold for hours with the unemployment office only to be told they are no longer taking calls today and hung up on. The response and support I have received is, to put it nicely, terrible. This experience is not unique to me my fellow hair stylist are all in the same position. The system has utterly failed us.
To take our business situation a step further toward the grave, our governing board the Minnesota Board of Cosmetology let us know that the Department of Employment and Economic Development has not included curbside salon sales as part of the Critical Sector Descriptions list, although they did say we could do mail-order sales of retail products and gift cards. Mailing heavy and bulky product cuts so far into our profit that it frankly doesnt make sense. All the while we see that restaurants and bars are able to sell their food and liquor curbside and gift shops can sell their knickknacks curbside. We cant help but feel as if we, a predominantly women-run industry, are being discriminated against. Selling products curbside could make it possible to keep the lights on as we wait to reopen someday.
Please know that I (along with my three business partners and many of our colleagues) understand the severity of this pandemic. We realize that our work is face to face, and at this moment of trying to prevent the spread of COVID-19 we cant work. We cant provide the services that make the bulk of our income, but we should be able to sell our products to our clients. To ensure that this is done in a safe way we have an online system set up for them to order and pay, all we would have to do it deliver it curbside with masks and gloves on. I think that what we are asking for is fair.
I am also asking our political leaders and regulators to engage our industry as they look to re-open the economy.
Its interesting that not only are restaurants and bars listed as a top priority but so are places like gyms. All of these places require face-to-face interaction in which someone is either making someone else food or sweating next to someone else.These businesses have received more attention than ours, and Im glad everyone is working to find a safe way to let them get back to work.
But theres no reason they should matter more than our businesses.
We are able to operate our salon in a safe manner using CDC-recommended protocols, and we should be considered in the same essential category as other service industry groups.
Taking care of our clients is our No. 1 priority, and here, for example, are some of the protocols we will implement and enforce once we are allowed to reopen.
1. We will ask people to wait in their cars until we are ready for their appointment. We will text or call when we are ready for them. We will ask that clients come alone (no kids, partners, friends).
2. We will ask clients and stylists to wash their hands or use hand sanitizer upon arrival.
3. We will have masks for both clients and service providers if they dont have their own.
4. We will thoroughly sanitize stations, surfaces and tools in between every single client.
5. We will not offer beverages or magazines for now.
6. We will ask both clients and service providers to stay home if they dont feel well.
We can and will operate safely. We need the powers that be to hear us.
Again, as a primarily woman-owned industry with small overall assets, it is hard to not feel discriminated against. It feels like we are being ignored. We have received no updates on when we might be able to sell products curbside (as other business are already allowed to do) or when we might return to work. To date, we have received no communication regarding this.
We have continued to fulfill our obligations by paying our rent and utilities and taxes yet have received no indication if all of this is futile because we may be closed for months or years. The lack of communication and respect for our work and industry is disappointing and saddening.
I have written letters to the Minnesota Board of Cosmetology, the Salon and Spa professional association, my local representatives, and Gov. Walz. I ask that our concerns be taken seriously so we can find a way to make it through this devastating time.
Bee Peterson of St. Paul is co-owner of Urban Village Salonspa in St. Paul.
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