Back in the Before Times, I spent a lot of time restructuring compensation and pricing for salon owners. Most of these salon owners made a conscious choice to make these changes to avoid the consequences of tax evasion and wage theft. The majority had no idea they were doing anything wrong and wanted to do better by their employees. Some followed the recommendations of professionals they trusted without realizing these accountants, CPAs, mentors, and financial advisors don’t have the education, experience, or credentials to be providing employment law advice to anyone.
A handful of these owners, however, were proud of their commitment to abusing their workers, acting as if surviving the abuse were a cultural rite of passage and a necessary part of every professional’s growth.
“We don’t believe in employment, so everyone here is independent.” my client said.
“Your current arrangement puts you in a very vulnerable position from a legal perspective because you’re exerting managerial controls you have no right to exercise,” I replied. “You’re also making less money than you would be making if everyone were properly classified and legally compensated. So, why don’t you ‘believe’ in employment?”
“Because that’s just not how this industry works. We just don’t believe in it. Everyone here is independent and they are in charge of them. If they want to be successful in this business, they need to work for it, promote themselves, and climb up the way we all did. That’s how we drop the dead weight from the industry.”
The professionals in this salon weren’t independent by any definition of the term, legal or literal. They were very much misclassified employees and the salon owner (who wanted to have and eat all of the cake) was willingly and knowingly committing tax evasion, wage theft, and fraud—and bragging about it like they were virtues or deliberate professional development strategies instead of extremely serious and highly punishable state and federal crimes.
“We have to pay commission-only! Why would they work if they’re getting paid to just sit there?”
Like it or not, salon owners, you’re required by federal law to ensure prevailing wage compliance. “Commission-only” is not and has never been legal and calling an employee an “independent contractor” doesn’t make them one.
I’m accustomed to this entire process, having had this exact conversation hundreds (if not thousands) of times with salon owners over the years. First, they boast about how industry abuses are part of our “culture.” They lament the changes they feel “forced” to make. Then, they try to defend their indefensible actions and behaviors by arguing that they somehow make our industry and the workers in it “stronger.”
“My employees pay for their own product,” another client explained to me. “That’s their responsibility and a cost of doing business in this industry. If they can’t afford it, they need to find a new career. Why should I be paying for their product?”
“Because they aren’t business owners and never asked to be burdened with the responsibilities of a business owner,” I said. “You’re the one who sets the prices, creates the schedule, and handles the appointment book. How can they offset their costs and be profitable when you’re the one who determines what their services are worth, when they can work, and how many clients they get each day? That’s not independence. That’s you pushing your costs of doing business onto misclassified employees. If they fail, it’s because you didn’t take responsibility for managing them properly, not because they aren’t cut out for this industry.”
Over the last two months, I’ve been reminded of these salon owners and how proud they were of not taking ownership of their businesses. I can’t help but think about how they would present their laziness, irresponsibility, and lack of consideration for the welfare of their employees as a series of clever management tactics. Even now, I am astounded by the mental gymnastics these owners do to attempt to justify themselves.
Every problem in the salon is the fault of the professionals:
If the salon isn’t making enough money, it’s not because the owner hired more people than the business could justify hiring and didn’t bother to schedule them strategically, it’s because the employees are not marketing themselves well enough.
If the employees quit because they couldn’t afford to work for free, it’s not because the owner refused to pay the prevailing wage in accordance with state and federal law, it’s because the employees “couldn’t compete in the industry.”
If the owner ends up in hot water with the IRS for misclassifying their employees as independent contractors, it’s not because the owner was exploiting them and willfully breaking the law, it’s because the employees had a “personal vendetta” against the salon owner.
There’s no attempt from willful violators to take responsibility for setting their workers and their salons up to fail. There’s no remorse. Instead, there’s a dismissive wave of the hand, an irritated eye roll, and muttered resentments.
When talk turns to actual management strategy—with regards to talent acquisition and retention, for instance—the callousness really becomes apparent.
“Employment benefits for hairdressers? Sick pay?! Nobody does that! Why should we?”
For years, I’ve wondered what makes people in our industry this way. What gives these owners such a strong sense of entitlement? What makes them think the best way to develop a professional is to baptize them by fire? Why do they believe professionals in our industry aren’t worthy of guaranteed wages, paid time off, or health insurance? Why can’t they see that this lack of security is directly tied to our high attrition rates? How do they not realize this asinine attachment to an “eat or be eaten”/“survival of the fittest” mentality undermines the legitimacy of our profession and damages their own salons?
Why are they bragging about being a terrible place to work as if that’s a point of pride akin to a company value rather than a profound embarrassment and a scathing indictment of their irresponsibility?
COVID-19 killed the fabricated nobility of this sink-or-swim narrative dead in the two weeks it took for exploited professionals all over the United States to realize what their self-employed status actually meant.
Non-compliance is and always has been the easy way out for salon owners who wanted to own a salon but didn’t want to do the actual work required to become a good salon owner. I’ve long suspected these abuses were never truly the result of an ideological choice but have been presented as one to convince professionals of their validity. This lazy, shitty approach to business ownership won’t survive the post-Covid economy, and I’m glad for it.
A good deal of non-compliant salon owners are in for a rude awakening when the stay-at-home orders are lifted. The pandemic has made evident the serious flaws in our industry’s approach to employment. It’s not just the professionals non-compliant owners will have to answer to, but their clients and the public at large, as these issues have been gaining more attention over the last five years.
“Even documented workers will have a challenging time accessing the benefits they may be entitled to due to the pervasive, illegal payment practices that pervade the nail salon industry, including underreporting earnings, or failing to keep records altogether.”
There problems aren’t new, they just impacted individuals previously, and therefore often went without much public notice. COVID-19 put all exploited workers in the same boat pretty much immediately, and that sudden education on an industry-wide scale changes everything. As an advocate for beauty workers, I can’t help but appreciate the poetic justice and rejoice in the sudden and (hopefully) final end to this idiocy.
Our industry has used “girl power” to manipulate people for as long as I can remember, promoting our largely female-founded companies as mechanisms driving female empowerment and allowing beautiful, well-marketed salons to grace the pages of popular fashion and lifestyle magazines, all while conveniently ignoring the fact that many of these same female founders owe their success entirely to the (mostly female) employees who quietly accept their exploitative practices.
The hypocrisy has annoyed me for decades…but those were the Before Times. Things are certainly different now, so the days of brainwashing workers to confuse acceptance of abuse with “empowerment” are finally over, once and for all.
[Related Post] “We should not be praising exploitative salon owners for providing work opportunities for immigrants any more than we would praise pimps for providing protection and work opportunities to women.”
Education is the true mechanism for empowerment. Educated professionals confront exploitative salon owners. Their knowledge gives them the strength to demand better. It motivates them to share what they know with others. For the last ten years that I’ve been working to provide accessible information to the industry and helping non-compliant salon owners become legitimate employers, the transition has been slow and painful, as willfully non-compliant salons were often only forced to change when an employee or group of newly-informed employees filed complaints with the WHD and IRS.
That time is suddenly now. Like the misclassified employees who had to contend with the possibility of being ineligible for unemployment during a pandemic, the salon owners who exploited those employees (intentionally or accidentally) are finding themselves in the same boat, too.
We’re likely to see a massive shift in how salon owners approach business management.
What form that shift ultimately takes—whether we see more salons revert to rental or become overwhelmingly employment-based—remains to be seen, but one thing is clear: non-compliant salon owners with a strong desire to “stick it to The Man” by way of screwing their employees over will have to figure something else out, because nobody in our industry can unlearn what they now know. They’re wiser and harder now, and certainly won’t tolerate “customary” abuses any longer, no matter what ridiculous narrative that abuse is dressed up in.