PART ONE OF A THREE-PART SERIES

The Economics Of A Pandemic Hairdresser

Are Personal Service Workers The New Front Line?
Woman Wearing Face Mask

Salons and spas adopt medical-grade procedures as they prepare to re-open in the age of COVID.

April 22, 2020

Editor In Chief of NASHOLE.COM, opinion columnist and citizen journalist Melanie Shelley is best known as celebrity hair and makeup artist to many national and local luminaries.  A  questionable example of good parenting to two bright and hopeful humans; protector of 3 cats, 2 dogs and 2 mildly entertaining hermit crabs;  Melanie spends her infinitesimal free time thrifting, songwriting, rescuing plants and poring over the works of Peter Medawar, Michael Polyani and the high holy prophet and seer known as Philip K. Dick. 

PART I: RISK VS. REWARD

As soon as Tennessee Governor Bill Lee announced that the state would be dropping the COVID19 quarantine and opening back up for business on April 30th [now delayed] the Nashville beauty group message boards on Facebook blew up.

 

Personal service workers -  hair-cutters, colorists, barbers, makeup artists, lash extension and brow artists, estheticians, botox injectors and waxing specialists -  who for weeks had been sending each other messages of support and posting hilarious “I Need My Hair Did” meme-fests, were suddenly at odds with each other, each having opinions wildly divergent from the next about how - and when - the transition from quarantine to public life should be rolled out.


Although there is no consensus as to the details, Nashville’s beauty warriors seem to fall into two teams. Frustrated by weeks of no income, mounting family stress and little or no response from the under-delivered CARES act relief package, Team “Let Us Work” is chomping at the bit to get back to business, regardless of the health risks. “THIS IS AMERICA,” they type, “We have the right to work, even if we get sick. We need to feed our families.” 

 

Their counterparts across the aisle? Legions of salon and spa owners, independent contractors and supply houses - Team “Wait It Out” - who are dealing with the same crushing COVID-related personal and financial concerns, but are asking the state to exercise a greater amount of caution in opening businesses that deal directly - and intimately - with the public.  

On March 13, 2020, no one in America could have predicted the events about to unfold. The announcement of nationwide social-distancing guidelines gave Kim Smith - hairstylist and owner of Six Degrees Salon in Nashville - a lot of concern.  “I thought, this isn’t going to work; we can’t do this job 6 feet away.  I didn’t know how this would look going forward, if we’d even be able to do hair at all.”

 

"We Can't Do This Job Six Feet Away."  - Kim Smith

Though state governors have issued broad guidelines for businesses as they re-open, the personal services industry has received no clear-cut set of state requirements to adhere to, in order to maintain the highest levels of personal and public safety.  “The TN State Board of Cosmetology has really dropped the ball on guidance, they have been asleep at the wheel,” says Smith.  “Moving forward, the Board of Cosmetology needs to work in tandem with the Board of Health. Salons will have to use personal protective equipment. We know about masks,  but should we be wearing face shields and scrubs? Who is going to provide all that? How can salons and independent stylists possibly be expected to cover those costs? We have got to come up with a plan.”

Smith isn’t one for complaining without providing solutions. “I would love to be part of a COVID Task Force team that trains salons and addresses all of these questions. There needs to be specific, across the board education - this is what you need, this is how we will help,  this is how you do it. So far we haven’t seen any of that.”

It seems easy enough to send out a list of equipment a salon must have on hand,  but the larger question is this: When our nation is already struggling to supply hospitals and emergency rooms with below-normal levels of PPE, how are our nation’s 600,000 stylists going to - consistently - procure it?

“I have N-95 masks that I ordered over a month ago that were very expensive, that I can clean and put under the UV light.”  Smith says, “But a lot of people are wearing theirs wrong - their nose isn’t even covered. You see people take them off in the middle of a grocery store!”

In an absence of leadership from the top, Nashville supply houses like Salon Service Group are stepping in to fill the gap. “We are putting together our own “Safer At Work” initiative, to ensure salons have clear “best practices” guidelines,” says Stacey Roach of SSG,  “Salons will have new occupancy restrictions -  which will generally be from one-half to one-fourth the normal occupancy allowance;  stylists need to have a fresh, sanitized cape for every client. There are so many other details. We need to do this for the safety and sanity and comfort of our salons, and their guests.”

 With only 8 days to spare, preparing for re-opening is bringing on more challenges for salons and spas than originally anticipated. “Besides following our own rigorous personal hygiene practices, we’re changing almost every way that we do business,” Smith details, “Spacing the seating out. Requesting customers wash their hands as soon as they enter the salon. We’ve added a no-contact policy so the client doesn’t have to touch anything with their hands. You don’t have to sign a credit card receipt; if you want to leave a tip, you can do it verbally and we’ll enter it for you. We clean the chairs and tools with Barbicide between every client; Lysol the door handles and light switches. We have hand sanitizer at every station. It’s a lot.” she says.

 

"We’re changing almost

    every way that we do business."  - Kim Smith

New work habits aren’t the only cost of doing business, mid-COVID. There are a slate of investments in more powerful sterilizing equipment that salons will have to make in order to stay ahead of the virus.  “There’s a difference between disinfecting, sanitizing and sterilizing.” says Smith,  “They are not the same thing.  We put in a UV light air purifier at the front desk, and a UV light sanitizer in the reception area, so people can put their cell phones in there. You touch your face, you touch doors, you touch the keypad at the grocery store - high touch surfaces - then pick up your phone and walk out. We’ll have to be diligent, and we're still never going to have a 100% sterile environment.”

Stacey Roach says Salon Service Group has responded as quickly as they can to the need for personal protective equipment at every station. “SSG  has literally stopped the production of our own brand, and shifted into the production of surgical masks and hand sanitizer,  offered in - previously impossible to get - larger sizes for salons and spas.  We are working with several manufacturers of masks, capes and UV lights to get costs lowered for salons. Hopefully we can get the cost of masks down to prices similar to disposable gloves.”

Then there are the expectations of the public at large. “It’s going to take a lot of education for the customer,” counsels Smith, “to understand  that when we go back to work it’ll be more of a medical-type environment. They have to know that they’ll  be asked to wear a mask for the entire service  - not only for their own protection, but for their stylist’s safety.  If a guest doesn’t wear the mask, and I breath in the virus and am asymptomatic for two weeks - how many people during that time am I going to infect?”

Perhaps a forthcoming antibody test would put both clients and personal service workers at ease, but Kim won’t  place her trust in that process yet, when there is still so much unknown. “Even if I was immune, I’d still wear the mask, because I wouldn’t want to get another strain, or get it a second time,’ says Smith. “The CDC doesn’t know enough about this bug yet. We know that, because they keep changing their mind about it every other day.  I had a client who told me he  didn’t want to wear a mask, and I told him, “This is a decision, not a discussion.”

In an industry that aims to provide a relaxing experience for their customers, it’s painful to have to make the decision to provide safety over comfort. “There will have to be policy changes. Asking “Have you had a fever in the last week?” may not be enough, we’ll probably be taking temperatures at the door, for both employees and clients.   In over 25 years of doing hair, I’ve had lots of clients come in sick and expect to receive services regardless. Not anymore.”

For Smith, the costs of being able to make a living during a pandemic must be carefully weighed, and wonders if April 30th [now delayed} may  be too soon in the nation’s COVID19 fight to expose herself to the potential dangers.   “Being self-employed, I don’t get paid time-off. It can cost me one, two thousand dollars in missed wages to go home sick.” Smith continues,  “If a client comes in sick, they should expect to be asked to pay for the appointment and return another time; the stylist has marked that time off - and extended it to clean in between - they can’t just put somebody else in that spot.”

Interestingly, the traditional sanitation practices we have all come to expect as a normal part of the hairdressing experience -  shampooing the hair before a service; wearing of a sanitary cape; disinfection of combs in a Barbacide jar - all stemmed from public health initiatives instituted in years long past. From the Middle Ages, barbers often served as dentists and surgeons. In addition to haircutting, hairdressing, and shaving, “barber surgeons” performed blood-letting, surgery, and tooth extraction. They began to form powerful guilds and received higher pay than surgeons, until surgeons were placed onto British warships during naval battles.

Regardless of the history, once you start putting all of the pieces together,  it becomes apparent that no matter what new safety measures are put in place, Nashville’s entire public health system will be completely reliant on every salon owner, personal service professional  - and client - actually complying with all the new standards that are rapidly unfolding.  “Our salon has a regular clientele who we know very well and can inform them of the changes and they will comply. But what about walk-in places like Fantastic Sam’s or Supercuts, where their stations are close together and they have no control over who’s walking through the door? People are packed in there. That’s a lot of risk to the stylist for a six dollar haircut.”

With discussion of the risk of potential infection aside, the costs of going back to work just continue to pile up, and fall firmly on the beauty industry’s shoulders. “The bigger salons are going to have to stagger shifts, each stylist will have to stagger appointments,  adjust working hours, work earlier mornings and later nights,” cautions Smith, “People are going to be working Sundays and Mondays - usually our days off - in order to limit the number of bodies that they can physically have in that space. Usually, a stylist will fit in a haircut while their color client is processing, and have another client waiting for them out front. The fact of the matter is - this virus is airborne. It’s going to take more time for us to clean in between clients. The days of double-booking are over. Salons are going to lose a lot of revenue.”

New, hidden costs of doing business seem to lurk everywhere. When the stay-at-home ban is lifted and the first wave of clients start flowing in, clients will  have missed one to two cycles of their normal cut or color. Under six weeks of quarantine, Smith has had a lot of time to crunch numbers. “Do you know their roots are going to cost us twice as much to cover?” Smith worries,  “It’s going to take 8 ounces - not 4 ounces - of product. So in the first two months,  our color costs will be double.”

 So where does Kim Smith see the state of the industry going from here? “Moving forward, we are going to be considered a high-risk, high-touch service,” predicts Smith.  “Except we don’t get hazard pay in our business.  When we open back up, we’re going to be the first ones getting sick. We’re the new front line.”

READ PART TWO HERE
 

Coming soon:

 

PART TWO OF A THREE-PART SERIES

The Economics Of A

Pandemic Hairdresser

PART II:

THE HIGH COST

OF DOING NOTHING

“The first day the SBA loan application was open, I was up at 7:00 AM, filling out the application online. I don’t need a 2 million dollar loan - my business is debt free. But if I had $10,000, that would get me by on my rent for the next 90 days. But I haven’t heard anything from that loan. I can’t get in touch with my banker. I can’t call the bank directly. We are the forgotten industry.” - Kim Smith, Stylist and Owner of Six Degrees Salon, Nashville,TN

READ PART TWO HERE


Coming soon:

 

PART THREE OF A THREE-PART SERIES

The Economics Of A

Pandemic Hairdresser


PART III:


THE FUTURE OF

PERSONAL SERVICES

A major concern among life-long beauty professionals is that many people will leave the industry because the job will become too difficult to do - and not profitable enough to stay in  - with the new restrictions.