Coffee Break: Salon And Barber Shop Industry Needs Help On Beacon Hill

Filed Under: Other News, Coffee Break

We’ve heard many stories about how the workforce here in Southeastern Massachusetts and Cape Cod – and well beyond – has been impacted by COVID-19.

The retail shops and the restaurant industry come immediately to mind. One industry that you may not have heard much about, though, is the salon and barber shop industry. In addition to the challenges that many industries face, namely the lack of customers due to COVID restrictions and concerns about social distancing, our industry faces a serious labor and labor classification challenge, which means a limited labor pool. This needs and deserves the attention of the administration and the Legislature.

Salon and barber shop owners who act as employers – which is to say, that they issue W2s to their workers as opposed to simply renting them a chair and treating their co-workers as independent contractors — face a significant number of challenges in the Commonwealth.

First, there is an extremely limited labor pool to draw from. Staffing during a pandemic and recovery looks very different to a cosmetology/barber employer than it does to other Main Street employers.  While retailers, restaurants, banks and other Main Street businesses are free to hire any available worker, cosmetology and barbering employers are limited to those who hold an occupational license.  Obtaining such a license is not easy, and the availability of existing licenses is insufficient.

You might not initially think so if you research and discover that there are more than 73,000 such licenses in the Commonwealth. However, the vast majority of these licensees are unavailable; the holders are either inactive or they are working under a form of self-employment.

While salons or barber shops appear to be the same from the street, only two out of 10 salon and barbershop owners act as employers with a payroll, ensuring compliance with wage and hour laws and providing paid leave and worker entitlements.  For the other eight, steps must be taken to ensure that workers are treated fairly and that all operators are in a fair and competitive marketplace.

All individuals working in salons or barber shops must attend an extensive 1,000 hour program at a cost of between $10,000 and $20,000.  

Massachusetts law does not allow employers to apprentice workers for entry-level positions, leaving the entire labor supply dependent on the accessibility to, capacity of, performance of, and price of a small number of cosmetology and barber schools.  That’s the labor pool that our industry must draw from. Many individuals are excluded.  Not everyone can commit to the time and expense of one of these programs to obtain the necessary licenses, but if there were a paid path to get a license it would be of great value.  

Though represented by one board, the Commonwealth requires separate licenses for cosmetologists and barbers, with the primary distinction being the skill of straight edge shaving.  For either a barber or cosmetologist to obtain the other license requires 500 additional hours in school.  There are only four barber schools in the state.  

Salon and barbershop employers serve as a responsible party for everything from pandemic response, tax withholding, wage and hour laws, worker protections and compliance with the Affordable Care Act, Families First Coronavirus Response Act and Paid Family Medical and Leave.  A pandemic has reinforced the notion that a key component to public health and safety is employer flexibility toward employees.  Yet classification and licensing laws are not providing support or flexibility as they work to staff their operations. 

Here are a few steps that the Legislature can take to address these inequities:

  1. Create an Employer Intern License which would allow employers to hire without candidates first having to go through a third-party program.
  2. Pay attention to – and enforce – worker classification in this industry. The widespread practice of workers being treated as contractors or tenants need attention. Even before COVID-19 fewer than 20 percent of individual cosmetology or barbering licensees were classified as employees. The Commonwealth needs to ensure a fair and competitive marketplace.
  3. Classify cosmetology and barbering as an apprenticeable occupation.
  4. Seek guidance from within the industry to assist the licensing board in making fair and informed decisions.

If you agree, want to help or just learn more, please email frank@beautywork.org.

Frank Zona owns Zona Salons in Norwell and is the chair of the Professional Beauty Employment Coalition.  He has testified to both the U.S. Congress and the Massachusetts Legislature on issues around employment in the professional beauty industry.


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