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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.

May 2, 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. 


Nashvillians are in week six of the COVID19 shut-down, and cabin fever is high.  If you drive by the greenways, the golf courses and Home Depot, you will see throngs of people, out enjoying a near-perfect spring in small groups - some wearing masks, but most without - the only grim detail within a larger picture of hope. But the Davidson County personal service establishments are still shuttered, with a sign on the door detailing Mayor Cooper’s “Safer At Home” order, no re-opening date listed.

On April 27th, Governor Bill Lee signaled May 6th as the end of the “Safer At Home” order for 89 counties in Tennessee, of which Davidson County is not included. Nashville salons, barber shops and spas - including hair, skin, nail, massage, brow, lash, makeup, nail, waxing, botox and tattoo establishments - and their loyal clients are still awaiting information from the Davidson County Health Department and Mayor John Cooper’s office as to when a safe re-opening date will be announced, in Phase 2.

Contrary to the public impression that they have been twiddling their thumbs and watching Netflix’s Tiger King throughout this shut-down, Nashville’s small business owners and independent contractors have been spending long hours reducing personal expenditures, pursuing unemployment benefits for themselves and their staff,  following updates on Small Business Administration (SBA) grants and loans, and waiting for their individual stimulus check to come through.

“When the shut-down started, I immediately contacted my independent contractor friends and started a text thread so we could all share information,” says Nashville hair colourist Heather Napier Wadell, “l contacted my mortgage company and requested a forbearance, then had interest holds put on my credit cards. Then I applied for unemployment, the EIDL, the PPP and a grant from the Professional Beauty Association.”

“I’ve had something to do every day,” says Kim Hunter, Owner of True Blue Salon on West End.  “The first phase was helping my team get their unemployment set up; I had to prove each of their income, as well as my own. The second phase was applying for all the SBA loans - then we started having multiple video conferences a day with the Aveda Network. Can you believe I also started taking a business college class?”

“We have 9 stylists and 4 support people, and we’ve all been working in some capacity every day,” details Heather McCollum, Stylist and Partner/Owner of Fruition Salon on Belmont, “whether it's gathering information; having conversations with my partners, my manager, our clients, our distributors, or our staff; working out unemployment; doing weekly certifications; making educational videos for our clients; or figuring out how we’re going to open the salon safely. For not being behind the chair,” says McCollum, “I have definitely done way more each day to run my business, than ever before.”

Still, the shutdown hasn’t stopped the flow of expenses, and the relentless stream of client calls, texts and emails. Most salons have had to re-schedule a six-week-deep roster of client appointments, every time the Mayor has extended the “Safer At Home’ order.

“Fruition still has payroll. Our manager, Victoria, has been working full-time through all of this, managing all the client phone calls and our online workplace app, where our entire team communicates. She would tell you that the constant re-scheduling has been the worst part of all of this,” relays McCollum.

“We’re waiting to re-book. If not, we would have had to move our entire book twice by now,” says Hunter, “I’m not going to move appointments until the day Mayor Cooper says we can open; I’ll start moving the books on a Thursday and we’ll open the next Monday. I’ll also be re-building and staggering the entire staff schedule, according to the new occupancy restrictions.”



Though salon and spa employees seem to be receiving their unemployment benefits in full and on time, their salon owners and booth-renting counterparts have not been so lucky. Tennessee’s unemployment system wasn’t built for 1099 workers, so the state has had to overhaul an already antiquated system in a matter of weeks to fit the new flood of applicants. The TN Department of Labor and Workforce Development say that this glitch has been worked out, and that payments started flowing to the self-employed on April 27th, albeit for significantly less than they were originally promised.

Many independent contractors are seeing their base unemployment pay come in as low as $108 per week - nearly 1/3 of the $275 per week that had been bandied about from the state pulpit - with the addition of $540 - $600 per week provided to all recipients in the federal stimulus package. Many applicants who applied in mid-March have found two or three recent weeks of payment landing in their bank accounts simultaneously, with no hint of back-dating to fill in six weeks or more of lost wages.

As hopeful as the arrival of any benefit is on a personal level, owners know that the checks are not enough to re-open and sustain a business that has been shuttered for months.

“Our landlord, all our various utilities and suppliers, most everyone has giving us delayed payments,” explains McCollum, “But how long will the landlords offer forbearance on rents? Most owners I’m talking to are thinking long-term, requesting reduced lease payments at least through the end of the year.”

To add to the pressure, the SBA has announced that a self-employed individual cannot accept both unemployment benefits and Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) benefits at the same time. This puts 1099 individuals in a stranglehold. They are starting to receive unemployment payments that they need -  but are not at liberty to use - in anticipation that the more beneficial PPP money will be coming through for their business.

When the first wave of federal relief funding for small businesses got scooped up by big franchises with multiple locations within two weeks, Tennessee self-employed were filled with anxiety. “When they announced on the news that the first round of PPP was already distributed,” says Waddell,  "I yelled at the TV, ‘Then who got it?!’ No one I know did.”

“It’s really disappointing. As an American citizen, I’ve never seen such government mis-management that I can recall,” says Heather McCollum, Owner of Fruition Salon on Belmont. “I know they’re just all doing the best they can,  but there are simple things that could have been done. For instance, making sure that there is a realistic cap on what qualifies as a small business. All of these bigger businesses found the loopholes around the EIDL and PPP limitations, which allowed them to get the loans first, which should never have happened. Now there will probably be several small businesses that don’t get it, because they didn’t have enough money in the first place to have the powers-that-be push the bank in their direction. They’re going to have to end up declaring bankruptcy, or closing - or both.”

“I don’t need a 2 million dollar loan - my business is debt free,” says Kim Smith, Stylist and Owner of Six Degrees Salon on West End, “If I had $10,000, that would get me by for the next 90 days. But I haven’t heard anything. I can’t get in touch with my banker. I can’t call the bank directly. I swear, we are the forgotten industry.”


"I can’t get in touch with my banker. I can’t call the bank directly. I swear, we are the forgotten industry.”   - Kim Smith, Six Degrees Salon

Now the President, Congress and the Senate are saying that a second wave of EIDL and PPP funding has been sent from Washington to Tennessee, but if it’s here, it’s been extremely hard to come by.  

“I’ve spoken to the bank and expect to get my PPP loan, but as of today have not received it yet.” says Kim Hunter of True Blue Salon.

Adding insult to injury, many personal stimulus checks have been slow to arrive as well.

“I have not yet received a personal stimulus check,” says Susanne Shepherd Post, Owner of Shine The Salon, “I heard that our PPP is processing and has been sent to the Small Business Administration, but I’m not banking on anything until I hear directly from them. It would give me peace to hear that other salon owners had actually received theirs.”

“I have received two weeks - out of six - of unemployment.” details Waddell,  “My PPP has been approved, but I haven’t heard or seen anything yet. And I have not yet received my stimulus check.”

Another proposed avenue of relief for independents was the Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL).  The original online application for the EIDL stated that it was a forgivable, emergency business loan of $10,000 that would be distributed within three days to struggling businesses in early April. Of the five businesses that we interviewed for this piece, only one has received their EIDL, and that is in addition to a successful PPP bid.

“Our finance guy took that check and said, ‘We’re setting this aside, we’re not touching it, just in case the bank made a mistake.’’ says McCollum of Fruition, "He was surprised that we got the EIDL first, then was amazed when the PPP came through as well. Without the EIDL and PPP coming in,  I don’t know what we would do - we would have been maxing our credit cards out for a long time.”


"Without the EIDL and PPP coming in, we would have been maxing our credit cards out for a long time.” - Heather McCollum, Fruition

Anecdotes are coming in that some EIDL disbursement amounts are being reduced,  without notice to applicants. “I have one friend - a booth renter at a bigger salon - who got her EIDL payment, but it was for $1000, not $10,000,” reports Waddell.

Everyone is desperate for the relief, yet most are acting cautiously in order  to comply with the nebulous terms of how the EIDL and PPP can be used.

“You can get it all forgiven if you pay 75% on employees, then the other 25% on rent, utilities and loan interest,” counsels Hunter of True Blue, “I would just put it in an account by itself, and give it back if you don’t need it. I wouldn’t put yourself in a position where you’ve got to pay it all back.”


‘In our industry,” notes Susanne Shepherd Post of Shine The Salon, "we have to acknowledge that we are stepping back into our workspace with an amount of risk. We are recognizing it, but we are already trained within our industry as to how to sanitize and disinfect properly.”


"We have to acknowledge that we are stepping back into our workspace with an amount of risk." - Suzanne Shepherd Post, Shine The Salon

Even with new safety standards as Nashville crawls towards re-opening, some salons and spas are reporting service team members who are refusing to come back to work out of fear of public exposure, until further notice.  

Though the government cannot force a business to open, owners are feeling trapped by the current battle between health officials, the city and the state. If a business owner - or their employees - feel that it’s too soon in the pandemic’s arc to safely re-open, they still face a slippery financial choice in staying closed. Once the mayor says it’s time to go back to work, their staff’s unemployment benefits start falling away, and the clock starts ticking on repayment for any SBA loans that may have landed. In this dilemma, personal service workers don’t have the bandwidth to push back on an opening date, without affecting their benefits in the process.

“I wish the repayment process on the PPP would start 8 weeks after re-opening, instead of right away,” says Hunter, 'The money would be used to pay people and take them back off of unemployment. It would be a huge help for 8 weeks - a lifesaver! But if you could only do it for 4 weeks, it’s just not as helpful.”

As time ticks on, more stringent guidelines and regulations have been put forward by the State Board of Georgia, and are being adopted and amended by Tennessee’s State Board. These include the wearing of masks at all times by both the service provider and the client; a limitation of 10 people per salon at one time, including stylists and clients; touchless greetings and goodbyes; shampoo services for color clients only; the  abolishing of walk-in servicing; and the most controversial of all -  a suggested moratorium on blow-drying, until further notice.

“It’s really hard, that’s a huge part of my service,” opines McCollum, “But the whole idea of blowing an airborne virus all over - even with masks on -  you’re just looking for a recurrence.”

Most other top Nashville stylists concur with this assessment, at least for the first couple of months back on the floor. “I won’t be doing blow-dries for a while,” decides Napier-Waddell.

“We want to make your hair beautiful before you leave,” opines Kim Hunter, “But I don’t want to blow a virus around and kill an 80 year old woman in the corner!”

And how will the new “Appointments Only” policy affect an industry segment that relies heavily on walk-ins for it’s bottom line?

“I have ten stylists,” notes Kim Hunter, “We do maybe three walk-ins a day, so it won’t affect our bottom line much. But it could affect Supercuts or Sports Clips to the point that they’re not able to reopen.”


"It could affect Supercuts or Sports Clips to the point that they’re not able to reopen."

- Kim Hunter, True Blue Salon

What of those people who habitually call at the last minute? “They’re not going to be able to get in,” says Hunter.

Besides the addition of sanitation practices, more physical changes are coming that will render once-mundane personal care visits unrecognizable.  

“No magazines; no beverage service; all soft, upholstered furniture is being removed from the salon; no waiting area - you’ll wait in your car until you’re called in,” says Hunter, “I’m looking at installing plexiglass shields between the shampoo bowls.”

“I’ve also seen salons installing plexiglass dividers between stations,” says Shepherd Post.

With all these changes, will service providers be able to service the same amount of clients they were used to, pre-COVID?

“I normally book on the half hour. I put a color on, do a haircut, take the color off, cut that person’s hair, and have another client waiting  - all with an assistant there to help me,” says Hunter, “The new rules are going to cut my capacity to take customers in half.”

“Salons are looking at creative ways to still make the numbers work,” says Post,  “Opening from 6:00 AM to 9:00 PM, for example,  instead of 9:00 AM to 6:00 PM.”

“Everyone will be able to work the same amount of hours, but they can’t double-book,” says McCollum, “We’ve got the schedule worked out so that everyone can still social distance from each other.”

“I’m thankful that I work in a small environment and have total control over the disinfection of my workspace. A lot of my stylist friends in larger salons are talking about doing 13-hour days because they have to stagger their schedules,” says Waddell. “I’ll have to work more to make up the money. I’m going to be working a longer work-week to compensate, which means more time away from my family,” she continues, “But I’m going to get all my clients in, that’s just how I work.”


“We’re all going to be nervous going to work,” says Heather McCollum,  “We’re all going to be worried about that client who hasn’t tested positive, but is showing symptoms. Are we going to be doing their hair? Or are we going to be saying, ‘Let’s wait a few weeks, wear a hat!?”

“The hardest thing that’s going to happen when we re-open, is to tell clients that they cannot ask us to do anything that we have told them we are not capable of doing under the new restrictions,” says Hunter, “Don’t ask for a  blow-dry. Why? Because we can’t do it, and when you ask, it makes us feel bad.”

In an industry based on personality and clear, positive communication, how is a mask - worn by both client and stylist - going to affect client interactions?

“We need to come up with hair-friendly masks, and masks that you can actually see someone’s expressions through,” suggests Post, “What I’ll miss most in this mask age is the ability to see smiles and frowns, the communication we are all able to have without saying anything.

“I’m definitely going to wear a mask - I’ve even thought about a face shield - because I honestly don’t know how it will be to work in a mask all day,” says McCollum,  “I did a trial run of a highlight and cut, and I felt claustrophobic. I had to go in the back to take the mask off and breathe. There were times when my client’s mask came off and she had to readjust it. I thought, ‘How are we going to do this?’”

“You will have some people who are going to think you’re crazy for asking them to wear a mask, or for them to show you a negative test.  There are just so many unanswered questions,” says Waddell. “Do I go get myself tested, and only take clients who can show me a negative test? Can I just go to the health department and get a test every day? How often do you need to get tested?”

“Not everyone has the same sense of urgency about this. There seems to be huge group of people who don’t really care. My massage therapist of 20 years just told me that she didn’t plan on wearing a mask while working, and that she thought the whole thing was blown out of proportion. I was shocked. I thought, ‘Oh my gosh. I don’t know if I can go see her anymore.’” - Client, anonymous upon request

“It would be ignorant to say, 'I’m safe, and you’re safe, so let’s not wear a mask.' Anytime people are together in close proximity, there is risk,” says Post, “Yet, we are trying to - hopefully together - mitigate that risk.”


“I am very concerned about people that are isolated, that are not “Safer At Home’ right now,” worries Susanne Shepherd-Post, founder of Shear Haven, a YWCA domestic violence initiative that trains service professionals to identify signs of abuse in their guests, and guide them to the right help. “Our state is fifth in the nation, as to the rate that women are killed by men. It’s a crisis here. The YWCA has the largest shelter in middle Tennessee. Right now, their domestic violence calls are up 55% from the same period a year ago, and the numbers are dramatically increasing.”

“Statistically, domestic violence affects 1 in 4 women, and 1 in 7 men, from every socio-economic background,” says Post.

So, if our neighbors and clients could be experiencing violence in their home during this shut-down, does this mean 1 in 4 personal service workers could be experiencing it as well?

“Absolutely,” confirms Post. “It’s important now, more than ever,  to seek out help immediately.”

If you are in danger, need to speak with an advocate, or have general questions about domestic violence, please call or text:


YWCA’s 24-hour Crisis & Support Helpline:
CALL 1-800-334-4628 (or) TEXT to 615-983-5170


Of all the people most excited to get back into the salon, it seems to be the customers. Nashville clients appear more than ready to get back into their personal care routines, no matter the risk.

“I’ve been getting personal texts from lots of people saying, ‘When are you opening? Can you open just for me? How do I get to the top of the list?’” says Waddell.


“I’ve been getting personal texts from lots of people saying, ‘When are you opening? Can you open just for me? " - Heather Napier Waddell, Colourist

“Mostly my team is telling me that their clients are bugging them to come out and do hair at their house. I’m saying, ‘No!’ I’ve gone so far as to tell people that we could lose our salon license if we open the doors, and I’m not willing to risk that,” explains Hunter, “Most of my clients have been pretty good. It’s the men that have been the worst, ‘My hair looks terrible, I need a haircut!’ They’re going to have to wait, like everybody else. We all need a haircut. I need a haircut, too!”

“So many clients still think we’re opening May 6th,” laughs Waddell, “I’m like, ‘Are you not watching the news? We live in Davidson County, and salons are waiting for Phase 2!”


As Williamson county opens their doors on May 6th, and Nashville’s remain closed, a  perfect storm awaits. Many quarantined professionals are wondering if an impatient client might head to outer county salons looking for a loophole, in order to get their hair done sooner. Casual clients, especially those in their 20’s or 30’s, seem more than willing to take a chance, in order to get their pre-quarantine looks back as soon as possible.

“You know how people are about their hair,” says Heather Napier Waddell, “People are willing to take more risks to get their hair done. It’s crazy, but it’s very true.”

If Nashvillians find themselves hopping counties in order to preserve their looks, what will that mean for Davidson county’s nicely flattening COVID curve when they return? What can Nashville businesspeople say to this?

“Wait. Just wait. Do it for the stylist you know, who is going to say yes to doing your hair,” counsels Heather McCollum, “Make it so they will be able to do it as safely as possible, so they can keep doing hair for many years to come.”


Coming soon:



The Economics Of A

Pandemic Hairdresser




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.


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