Hairstylists Might Go Back To Work, But Their Jobs Will Never Be The Same

Hairstyling was a recession-proof profession — until a global pandemic changed everything.

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In 2008, during the financial crisis that devastated numerous industries and resulted in 2.6 million lost jobs, hairstylist Carly Flynn and her husband Howie Goldklang saw business in their three salons actually increase. But 2020, which marks their 16th year as salon owners, has left them overwhelmed. “This pandemic and the aftermath is like nothing we've ever seen before,” Goldklang says.
Like many other hair salon and barbershop owners across the country, the couple closed their three shops — L.A.’s SouthPaw barbershop, The Establishment salon in Silver Lake, and another by the same name in Flynn’s hometown of Milwaukee, Wisconsin — last month to help slow the spread of COVID-19. They furloughed their 42 employees to allow them to maintain their healthcare coverage but still apply for unemployment — a benefit that only became available to freelance and gig workers recently through the CARES Act.
Every day, Flynn and Goldklang share updates with their staff via Zoom. Recently, these meetings function more like wellness checks during which  employees talk through the ins and outs of filing for unemployment insurance, or just commiserate about toilet paper shortages or homeschooling rowdy kids. 
Photo Courtesy: The Establishment.
Howie Goldklang snaps a picture of his family's shuttered salon in the Silverlake neighborhood of Los Angeles.
“Conversations get serious when we discuss how benefits will be maintained or when and how we can open our doors again,” Goldklang says. “There is a feeling of anxiety around our wellbeing as a team when the general public comes back into our workspace.”
Flynn and Goldklang's situation isn’t unique. All over the country, people at every level of the hair industry — including cosmetology professors, students, recent grads, assistants, established stylists, and salon owners — have been laid off, furloughed, or are facing uncertain income in the wake of forced salon closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
It’s been a particularly shocking blow to the hair industry, which has historically been resilient even in the face of economic downturn. Goldklang's salon wasn't the only one that thrived during the 2008 financial crisis; in fact, the number of hairdressers, barbers, and the shops they work in grew by 8% from 2008 to 2009, according to The New York Times. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, hair salons were one of the few businesses that continued to draw in customers, even if they had to make personal sacrifices elsewhere to get their hair done. American women spent $6 million (approximately £5 million) on haircare services in 1936, and the number of cosmetology schools increased. "Women enjoyed trips to the beauty shop for social and emotional reasons as well as the practical benefits of a professional hairstyle," Victoria Sherrow explains in her book Encyclopedia Of Hair: A Cultural History.
It's a point of pride for hairstylists, who find purpose in providing people with a fundamental source of self-care and personal dignity even during trying times. Up until now, it's also given them a sense of job security, knowing they can depend on people to always come through their doors — come hell or high water. But now, with salons forced to close and professionals unsure about their own health and safety when they do reopen, everything has changed — and the hair industry will never be the same.
Continued Education
No industry has been left unscathed in the global coronavirus pandemic, but service industries, like hair, have been all but dismantled. It’s something that Samantha Cota, 26, a recent graduate of the Paul Mitchell Cosmetology School in Sherman Oaks, California, never saw coming when she enrolled two years ago.

"I know it seems silly to be hoping for an opportunity to help sanitise, but I just want to be in an environment to learn."

“I am hopeful that even if this is going on in a few months, we will adjust to this new normal,” Cota says. “My plan is to get my license as soon as possible and get an assistant position.” She feels confident that in San Diego, where she lives, salons will need help when they reopen — even if it’s not the position she once envisioned. “I know it seems silly to be hoping for an opportunity to help sanitise, but I just want to be in an environment to learn,” she says. “I’m trying to stay positive.” 
Before that can happen, though, Cota needs to take her California Board exam, which was cancelled earlier last month. “The Board of Barbering and Cosmetology has been consistently monitoring the situation and determined that for the health and well-being of the examination candidates, BBC staff, and examination proctors, the exams needed to be canceled,” says Cheri Gyuro, public information officer at the California Department of Consumer Affairs. “BBC will be working to reschedule all candidates as timely as possible at no cost.”
Until then, Cota is staying sharp with online tutorials that cost her $20 (approximately £16) a month, and studying to ensure she aces the test as soon as she’s given the opportunity. But for those still in beauty school, it’s a different story. Portland, Oregon-based cosmetology student Correia Rouse, 36, has been hit hard during the pandemic. First, she got laid off from her part-time job at Sephora, and then her cosmetology classes got moved online. 
Photo Courtesy: Correia Rouse
Correia Rouse's cosmetology schooling has moved online in the wake of COVID-19.
Rouse is thankful her family is healthy; she has a positive attitude and knows it could be worse, but she admits that things are still far from ideal. She says she’s struggling to learn in online classes with four kids at home. “I know this is going to impact my graduation date,” Rouse says, but she notes that despite the obstacles, she’s not giving up. “I just love making people feel good.”
That same sentiment of hope echoed across every interview we had with cosmetology professors and administrators, who say their students are committed to their education — pandemic or not.

“We are still having plenty of interest in both our cosmetology and barber programs,” says Brittney Morales, director for Diamonds Cosmetology and Barber College in Sherman, Texas, which has taken all its classes online for the time being. “We are still enrolling students every month. Our industry is taking a hit now, but I have no doubt that it will bounce back as soon as we can open again.”
Melinda Orta, a cosmetology instructor at Coastal Bend College in Pleasanton, Texas, and stylist with 33 years of experience, shared a similar view. “I honestly don’t think our industry will lose any interest,” she says. “If anything, I think this will open more doors for different avenues to those who are interested.”
Photo Courtesy: Kari Hill
Colorist Kari Hill has found some economic relief by offering root touch-up kits to her clients in isolation.
But it’s not just students being affected — even established, successful stylists are at a loss for what to do next. For Kari Hill, a veteran colourist at L.A.’s celeb-favourite Meche Salon, creating DIY root colour kits for her longtime clients has been a lifeline — and she’s working on a website to reach new clients online, too. “I’m offering a digital consultation that’s very similar to one in the salon,” Hill says. “Then I mix up the formula and send it to them with instructions. I joke that grey roots are the only thing paying my mortgage right now.” 
Unlike a box of colour from the store, Hill and her assistant are available to help via FaceTime, and the bespoke blend prevents any colour surprises. The service is legal in accordance with the California Board of Cosmetology, although it varies by state. “The Board of Barbering and Cosmetology does not have any regulations regarding products being sold outside of a salon,” Gyuro says, adding that it’s important to be careful as some of these are meant for professional use only.

On top of that, Hill is participating in Olaplex’s affiliate program to generate a little money for stylists in worse situations than hers. She says the brand is currently paying 35% commission for any products stylists sell through a unique link on their social media. Jamie Garland, stylist and owner of B Society salon in Los Gatos, California, is doing the same. 
“My income went from being able to comfortably support my family to having no income overnight,” Garland says. “Thankfully, product lines such as Incommon, Raindrops, Unite, and Dp Hue introduced affiliate links for stylists to sell products online and receive a commission. This has helped, but it doesn't come close to the income stylists are used to making.”
Fighting To Work
Frustration over lost wages and confusing unemployment benefits have left many beauty professionals eager to try anything to get back to work — including circulating petitions. “Clients have been sending this one to me a lot,” Hill says of a petition asking for California salons to open on April 27th. It currently has more than 59,000 signatures, but Hill questions if all salons can pull off what’s needed for it to happen, including thorough sanitising with smaller staffs and protective equipment. “Who will be taking everyone’s temperatures?” she wonders. Another petition on has more than 36,000 signatures asking for Oregon salons to be opened by the end of April, and another has more than 8,500 people asking for Massachusetts salons to open
Stylists pushed to the edge are desperate to go back to work to stay above water financially, but they still worry for their health and communities. That’s why many are more focused on collecting donations to distribute to stylists on the brink of poverty, versus rushing back into the salon.
“Hair professionals were not prepared for the inability to work,” says Michael Dueñas, celebrity hairdresser and President of Support Creatives, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organisation currently raising money through private donations to distribute to stylists who apply. Beauty publicists Kathy Pape and Linsey Tilbor Rubin started a GoFundMe page with a $10,000 goal and have raised a little over $1,500 so far. “We've had dozens of stylists from all over the country apply,” Pape says. “One person said they had no income, no savings, no money, and they were losing hope. Another was waiting on her test from quarantine after being exposed to the coronavirus.” These small movements add up and can change a life, but the big money is likely to come from beauty industry heavyweights with deeper pockets and greater access. 
Photo: Bill Tompkins/Getty Images.
Safety around reopening protocols is top of mind for hair pros all over the country.
L'Oréal USA Professional Products Brands is currently planning a #SupportYourStylist initiative with a goal of $2.5 million with, while Aveda is working towards its own $1.5 million dollar goal, plus extended payment terms, free continuing education courses online, and an increased online product commission structure. Both brands are rolling out their programs on April 30th, which is National Hairstylist Appreciation Day.
Facing The Future

Even with roadblocks, the hairstylists we spoke to remain confident that salons will reopen soon — and there will be plenty of colour corrections and haircuts, thanks to isolation DIY jobs gone bad. Hill thinks it will change the culture of hair in a profound way. “Nothing will ever be the same,” she says, stressing that because work has always been so plentiful, many stylists in her community weren’t financially prepared to stay home. 
Photo: Lauren A. Little/MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle/Getty Images.
A Pennsylvania salon owner prepares a color touch-up kit for a client in isolation. For many colorists, this has been their only source of income recently.
Cota and Rouse are hopeful that there will be entry-level jobs for them once they’re licensed, but with reopening mandates likely to impact gathering sizes, the tasks that kept assistants busy before — from shampooing to sweeping up hair — might need to be handled by stylists. Hill says that trends will change, too. “Back in 2008, I called ombré ‘recession hair’,” she says of the low-commitment style that bubbled up around the same time. She says styles like this will come rushing back, since they allow for less frequent visits.

As soon as I got to my phone, it was flooded with texts, calls, and voicemails from clients wanting to be the first appointment.

Atlanta stylist Brent Johnson-Gage
Starting today in Georgia, many stylists and salon owners will have to make a difficult choice whether to see clients and risk more COVID-19 infections in their community, or stay closed and risk further personal financial hardship. Georgia Governor Brian Kemp's decision to open the state this morning stands in sharp contrast to other leaders, like New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and California Governor Gavin Newsom, both of whom are strictly enforcing six-feet social-distancing orders until at least May 15th.

It’s a no-win situation that hairstylist Brent Johnson-Gage has been thinking about since March 14th, which was his last day in the salon before the shutdowns. Despite guidance from many health experts and mixed messages from President Donald Trump, Georgia opened many non-essential businesses this morning — including salons, barbershops, and nail salons — which puts stylists like Johnson-Gage in a precarious situation.
“The major implication to my business has been rent considerations,” Johnson-Gage says of the common hair industry model in which independent contractors rent chairs at a salon. His landlord paused rent payments during the closure, but that could change as soon as the salon reopens. “Those payments had been suspended during the governor’s shelter-in-place order, but will resume with his latest edict," he says.
That means Johnson-Gage will have to start paying rent on his chair starting again today, regardless of whether or not he starts working. But he also fears that if he doesn’t open back up, he might lose clients to another salon that does. “You almost feel forced,” Johnson-Gage says. “A lot of [my friends] are really nervous and scared about opening, but like me, they feel there isn’t another option because of rent and utilities." Salon Lofts, where Johnson-Gage's boutique is located, waived rent for tenants during the closures as a courtesy, but as states open, tenants will once again be liable for their payments.
After considering his options, Johnson-Gage first decided that he would return to work if the state moved forward with its plan. “[Georgia] Governor Kemp made the announcement, and as soon as I got to my phone, it was flooded with texts, calls, and voicemails from clients wanting to be the first appointment,” he says. “I don’t blame them at all. They probably know there is a strong chance of Georgia getting shut down again. They want to get in before that happens.”
Courtesy of Brent Johnson-Gage.
Hairstylist Brent Johnson-Gage is nervous to return to his Georgia salon after shelter-in-place laws are lifted.
Johnson-Gage and his colleagues were set to move forward with reopening today — and had even ordered a non-contact thermometer to take people's temperatures upon entry. But late last night, he says, they got cold feet. "We have been getting so many mixed signals and information from all branches of government," he says. "We just feel it isn't safe enough." Johnson-Gage says his clients responded well. "Quite a few said they were actually thinking about canceling," he says. "Others figured we wouldn't end up opening with how confusing and unclear everything is right now."

It's been a tough week for Johnson-Gage and his community, but he knows he made the right call. "Once I decided not to open, it was a huge relief," he says. The final straw, he explains, was the idea of trying to get ahold of personal protective equipment (PPE) that they would need to wear should they reopen. "The state board wants us to wear PPE, but our own health-care workers can't even get those supplies," he says, noting that through his wide community of hair pros in Atlanta, not one ended up opening today to his knowledge.
While many Atlanta stylists like Johnson-Gage considered opening, others refused to from the start. "They haven’t gotten this pandemic under control," says stylist TeQuerra Miller. "How is a hairstylist, nail tech, or massage therapist supposed to practice social distancing while working? It only takes one client to pass the virus to you — and for you to take it home to your family. It just isn’t worth the risk to me."

Other stylists and salon owners we spoke to are busy brainstorming measures for when they decide it's safe to open, including a no-guest or child policy, no double-booking for stylists, fewer assistants, and a split schedule that will limit hours and allow for a midday professional sanitisation. One salon owner who wished to remain anonymous says that, unfortunately, these new protocols could mean higher prices for clients and fewer jobs for professionals. 
Overall, everyone we spoke to agreed on one thing: Getting our hair done, whether it means taking the risk this weekend in Georgia or facing the decision down the road in other states, might never feel the same, but the strength of the hair industry and the clients that support it will come out on the other side stronger than ever. "Hairstylists are resilient," Hill says. "We'll weather the storm."

COVID-19 has been declared a global pandemic. Go to the CDC website for the latest information on symptoms, prevention, and other resources.

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