Hair stylists, barbers, tattooists among those with fewest options amid coronavirus closures

Mannequins at the Hair Science barber shop run by Shawn Idom in February. The shop is now closed because of a state health order meant to curb the spread of coronavirus. (Mayowa Aina/Alaska Public Media)

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You can’t cut hair from six feet away.

“There’s no way we could really practice our job and follow the social distancing guidelines,” said Meg Hronek, owner of Drift Salon in Anchorage.

The business has been undergoing an expansion, and last week construction was finally wrapped up enough for Hronek to operate at its new full capacity. But over the weekend she decided to close up shop, just days ahead of a state order that would have required the same thing.

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For weeks, she and her staff managed coronavirus concerns by exercising extra caution with hygiene and sterilization around the salon. But with 12 chairs for customers and the stylists to them, Hronek said there was just too much traffic and uncertainty for things to feel safe.

“One of my hairdressers came to me,” she recalled. “She had had somebody in her chair that had just traveled, and then right after that her very next client was an older woman on oxygen.”

Hair salons all over the state are closed under an order by the governor intended to prevent the spread of the coronavirus by enforcing social distancing in the commercial sector. Also shuttered are spas, nail salons, barbershops, tattoo and piercing parlors, and just about every business that falls under what the state calls “personal care services” in a March 23 health mandate closing them indefinitely. But because of the employment structure in these industries, its workers are uniquely ill-equipped for the mass closures in place for the foreseeable future.

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In Hronek’s salon, for example, half the stylist are employees of the salon; the other half, though, are independent contractors. Such a hybrid arrangement is irregular, according to Hronek. Businesses like hers will usually have one or the other, not both. The perks to independent contracting are control and flexibility. But right now, you’d almost certainly prefer to be in the other category.

“I think all of my independent contractors are wishing they were employees at this point,” Hronek said.

The big reason why: unemployment insurance. Independent contractors, whether you’re an Uber driver or an esthetician, don’t qualify for it under state rules. Many of the labor protections and safety net programs people are looking to now as the pandemic upends normally stable industries do not apply to a broad swath of workers who are suddenly without income.

Rene Meza has been cutting and styling hair for 16 years, and says people keep telling to just apply for unemployment.

“It’s like: you guys don’t understand, we’re sole proprietor businesses,” Meza said.

She originally got into the field because of the flexibility it afforded: if she needed more money, she could book more appointments. And as a single-mother, she was able to adjust the work to her kids’ scheduling needs. One of the trade-offs, though, is she’s responsible for a lot more overhead expenses, with few of the perks or protections covered by labor laws.

“There’s no backup plan,” she said. “We don’t have sick days we can cash in on, none of that kind of stuff.”

According to Meza, it’s a one-two punch for a lot of the stylists she knows, because many of them supplement their salon work with jobs in bars and restaurants. But those are mostly closed, too.

About a year ago, Meza began restructuring her finances so that she was saving more as part of her business plan. Now, she’s grateful she did, but knows it’s a position not everyone in the industry is afforded.

“It’s a very cash-in-hand industry,” she said. “If you aren’t financially savvy or budget savvy, these women are going on a day-to-day basis, a lot of them.”

For the first time in her adult life, Meza said, she can’t work, and is debating whether it might make sense to apply for a job stocking shelves at a grocery store. Those are one of the few places hiring amid the shut down. One of the silver linings to the current situation, she said, is that her clients have gone out of their way to support her, booking appointments in the future or buying gift cards.

That’s not an option for tattoo artist Jake Scrivner.

“My schedule is out almost a year, it’s like six or seven months. I can’t book, because I don’t know where I can put people,” Scrivner said. Without knowing when the health mandate will end, he can’t re-book or change plans with clients.

Scrivner owns Ultra Violence Tattoo in Anchorage. Piercers and tattoo artists working in his shop rent booths from him, but are independent contractors, not employees.

“Some of the tattooers have reserves, and some are on a pretty limited income,” he said. “Missing a week of work really matters. We all have house payments and truck payments and there’s not a lot of alternative (to) their income. You have to work every day. And that’s what we do.”

For the time being, Scrivner is suspending the shop rent his artists would normally pay until more details about the business closures are clear. He’s keeping a close eye on state and federal legislation that might help keep him afloat. He has some emergency funds to draw on for the time being, but if the shop has to stay closed for, say, longer than three months?

“We would be in trouble. Serious trouble. And we’re one of the most successful tattoo shops in Alaska.”

According to Shawn Idom, a member of the Board of Barbers and Hairdressers, which oversees most of the personal care services in the state, there are about 7,000 licensees in Alaska affected by the closure order.

“That’s a lot of families,” Idom said. If you consider children and spouses who might also depend on those incomes, he said, it accounts for tens-of-thousands of people now without essential revenue.

“It’s crazy to think of the scale of this thing,” he said.

According to a press release from U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski’s office, the senate-approved stimulus bill in its present form would cover 39 weeks of unemployment assistance to workers not currently eligible under state laws, “including the self employed” and “independent contractors.”

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Zachariah Hughes reports on city & state politics, arts & culture, drugs, and military affairs in Anchorage and South Central Alaska. @ZachHughesAK About Zachariah

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