Work Without Pay: “Am I required to perform free services to help ‘promote’ the business or myself?”

Salon employees are often required by their employers into participating in promotions that net them nothing. An example of this is the newly hired massage therapist who is required by the salon owner to perform complimentary ten minute chair massages to new clients to “build her clientele.”

I’m not even going to get into what a terrible business idea it is to offer free services except to say that salon owners devalue their business and the services of their staff when they offer anything for free. Free services attract deal-seekers (your typical Groupon-type clients). These clients are seldom ever loyal and will almost never be willing to pay full price for those services under normal circumstances. It’s a bad business decision and an amateur one that shows a clear lack of foresight or financial prowess–and a dangerous abundance of foolish optimism.

The only situation in which it would be legally permissible for a salon owner to ask a professional to work without compensation is if:

a.) they require applicants to perform a technical service during an employment evaluation, or
b.) the employees volunteer to provide services for a charitable event.

The owner cannot be getting any kind of compensation for the service from the person you are performing the service for.

In these situation, the employer may ask, they may not demand or require.

If a company “suffers or permits” a person to work, they must pay that person at least the prevailing minimum wage.

Not only will employers who require commission-based employees to work for free likely end up violating federal wage laws, they’ll very likely be violating state laws as well.

Salon professionals, please stop asking, “Is this legal?”

Instead, ask yourself, “Is this fair, appropriate, or acceptable?” If the answer you come up with is no, ask yourself why. List it, think of suitable alternatives, schedule a meeting, then present your argument and your solutions to the salon owner. Stop accepting bullshit behaviors and complaining about them after-the-fact.

Get better at saying no.

If you’re a “commission-only” professional and you want to offer complementary services to build your book or gain proficiency in a technique that you’re still mastering, that is a decision that you need to make–not one that anyone should be forcing on you (at least not without compensating you appropriately).

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Tina Alberino
Tina Alberino
Beauty industry survivalist, salon crisis interventionist, tactical verb-weapon specialist, and the leader of at least a hundred workplace revolutions, Tina Alberino is known as much for her extensive knowledge as for her sarcastic wit and mercilessly straightforward style. She’s the author of The Beauty Industry Survival Guide and Salon Ownership and Management: A Definitive Guide to the Professional Beauty Business. When she’s not writing, educating, or consulting, she can be found overthinking everything, identifying problems people didn’t know existed, and stubbornly working to change the things she cannot accept.

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  1. This happened to me twice. Right after I graduated, there was an owner at a strip mall salon that said I’d be hourly during the interview, but once I started she said commission base and then wouldn’t really let me work on clients for pay but I’d still have to come in and watch the other nail techs and practice on people. She didnt pay me for a child’s manicure because she said it was practice. I recently encountered a lady at a well established spa 45 mins from me say that I’d be commission at the first interview, but at the 2nd interview she said I’d be starting out by doing pedicures on the other nail techs and working my up to other services for no pay until I was “comfortable”. No mention of skin services,She also wasnt honest about the number of nail techs working there at the initial interview. So I’d be driving 45mins just to do free pedicures on the staff for free.

  2. So requiring new stylists to complete “quotas” in the salon, on their own time, without pay, and charging the “model” a product charge is illegal?

  3. In any case, no. You don’t work for free. Ever. There’s no excuse for it. Whether you’re new or not, you’re licensed. You are qualified. You deserve to be paid. You don’t owe anybody anything. You work for money. If they want loyalty, they can hire a dog. Is the salon owner collecting payment for the service?

  4. My employer requires us to do local bridal and prom shows without pay. She insists that she’s not getting paid so neither should we and that it’s a good business building tool. Is this legal?

  5. Absolutely not. “If the company ‘suffers or permits you to work,’ you have to be paid at LEAST minimum wage.” If you’re being “required” to work those shows, she is required to pay you for your time. It’s not your job to promote her business for free. It’s not *your* business. If she wants you to promote it, she needs to be compensating you for that.

  6. I am a newly licensed cosmetologist and this is my first salon. I was hired at commission only. If I don’t have a guest I’m am REQUIRED to stay in the salon and clean. Beyond your average laundry. I’m talking dishes, mop floors, vacuum, run to beauty supply stores, the bank, various other department stores all supplies for the salon without any sort of compensation. Also, we are all required to show up at least 15 minutes early or its a write up (understandable but legal?), not leave until the store is to the owners standards (up to an hour after the salon closes), attend meeting held out of salon hours and sometimes outside of the salon. Is this wrong or am I just overreacting about being “the low man on the totem pole”?

  7. Well, this depends. If you are clocking in and out and your hours are being audited against your state’s minimum wage, as long as what you’ve earned in commissions equals or exceeds what you would have made on minimum wage–it’s legal. If the hours aren’t being checked against the minimum wage, it’s illegal. Your paycheck should have a detailed breakdown of what hours you worked, what your pay rate is (when averaged against those hours), and whether or not your salon owner met the FLSA requirements. If you’re getting paid, she can ask you to do whatever she likes. If she’s not adhering to federal labor laws, she’s at risk of being audited, charged with labor abuses, and penalized by federal and state governments.

  8. Thatks for all the insightful information. I work in a commission payed salon. My boss implimented a ‘product fee’ deduction from our checks. She has never explained how this fee is broken down or anything. When I ask, she gives me every excuse there is. The last 6 months seems to have jumped dramatically, still without explanation. I have worked here 2 1/2 years and almost $18,000 was deducted. This DOES NOT include tax or S.S. We get paid bi-weekly and last check I did 3,300 in sales. She first deducts $503 then commission is figured, then taxes are removed. I’ve even had checks with same sales total and $618 in deductions!. I think she thinks its ok to make that # whatever she wants. If our rent goes up she raises ‘shop costs’. She says its totally legal.

  9. I’ve worked at a huge nationwidw beauty retail chain with a beauty salon in it for 3 1/2 years. They pay $8 an hour if you do not hit your commission quota which varies. I am very busy and never fall below my quota. UNLESS there is a coupon out, (and they put them out a lot.) Once in a while I fall below my quota when these coupons are redeemed. Imagine a paycut on a regular bases of any where between $100 and $500 a pay period. And let me tell you I work even harder. You hit the nail on the head about them just coming in for a deal, and never return. Now, it isn’t a totally free service, except when a new employee starts and they give all new retail, and corporate employees a free day of beauty coupon. Also they do “Events” and people come in for free shampoo and blow outs. They never come in to spend money there, untill the next free event. Some don’t even tip. And employees get 50% off their services after that. The kicker is back to the commission thing. They do not slide the commission scale down when there are hundreds of dollars we are not able to earn. So we take a double hit. I take a triple kick in the pants, because I cannot always get my regulars in so I come in earlier and stay late, lot’s of 10-12 hour days back to back clients, to make up for it. And they use couons too. It’s just insane that this company does this. We all feel devalued, and taken advantage of by everybody. As you can imagine the turnover rate is very high. Is this legal?

    • Personally, I think your “quotas” need to be renamed “goals” and they need to be adjusted for coupons, so that your sales are reflective of the actual service’s value. That system invites abuse on behalf of the company, who can push out promotions and use them against your quotas to ensure you rarely hit them. Not a fan of that.

      I’m always surprised when corporate chains do things like this that rarely equate to measurable results. To me, this indicates that they’re more interested in promoting and moving retail than they are in building a thriving service-based business. It’s legal as long as you’re being compensated the prevailing wage, but again, the system is being designed to work against you earning more. It’s designed to keep you perpetually “hungry” and working your ass off. They need to strike a balance to ensure you’re capable of achieving the goals and earning more, but to do that, they’re going to need to eliminate those insane coupons.

  10. So the salon I work at is commission base and it’s 50%/50%. I’m new starting off and My lowest check has been $20 since I have no clientele as of yet I’m having a hard time getting people in any advice!? Also lately ive been having problems with my boss and management at times they’re very unprofessional and discuss things on the salon floor that has to do with me in front of clients that should be discussed in private. Also they gossip a lot about everyone at the salon which makes it a very uncomfortable environment to work in not only did I noticed the shade in management and owner but my co worker feels the same. My salon owner walks all over me as well for example I have a key to the salon because she claims that she loves that I’m always on time and at first I took it as a privilege because she was trusting me so that made me excited but it was gotten to a point where she’s always late and expects me be there to open all the time which I know I kind of signed of for that when I agreed to take the extra key but being that I’m not her manager and she expects me to open and close the salon most of the time I feel as if I’m taking advantage of. Another thing on day I had a Client in my chair and another client of mine walked in the door I let her know I was finishing up my blow dry and that I’d be right with her so the salon owner who also does hair happened to know my client who had came in and she went to speak with her and all of a sudden she starts walking my client to her chair and says that she knows her and she’s going to do her hair. Of course this took me by surprise and I didn’t know how to react and she ended up doing my clients hair. I’m starting to feel like she feels like she can walk all over me!! And last but not least even though I’m on commission she is training me and she had made me do someone’s hair all over again free of charge after coming in with black hair and wanting blonde and was specifically told by me that she couldn’t be blonde with one try but because the client was upset I had to suffer the consequences of not getting paid to relighten her hair, blow dry and cut all free is that okay for her to do !? Sorry I wrote so much there’s a lot going on there I might just need a new job ugh

    • There are so, so many issues here. You definitely need a new job.
      1.) 50/50 commission, you’re not getting paid in accordance with the FLSA. HUGE problem.
      2.) Unprofessional employer. That’s an issue that won’t resolve itself and will continue to damage your reputation and hurt your ability to build.
      3.) Irresponsible employer. You’re right. You aren’t a manager, and she needs to set an example. It’s unacceptable for her to burden you with her responsibilities without compensating you for it.
      4.) Employer who competes on the floor. Her ass doesn’t belong there unless it’s absolutely necessary. Taking a client from you to do anything other than shampoo or prep her for you is BULLSHIT. She has NO RIGHT to take money out of your pocket like that. She’s working against you. Completely unacceptable.
      5.) Free services?! #byefelicia

      You need a new job. For sure. I wouldn’t waste another day there if I were you.

  11. Long story short, if a customer complains and the spa comps the entire facial. Is the spa allowed to not pay me as well? It wasn’t even a complaint where a client had a reaction to the facial. The client just claimed that she didnt like the facial. I’ve been an esthetican for 7 yrs and have worked in a 5 star hotel spa, so im very detailed and really give my all in every facial. Ive worked at this spa for about a year and half and have not had 1 complaint. I performed the full 60 minute. Not sure if you need more detail then that. I’ve been searching the internet to see if this is legal and I can’t seem to find anything.

    • At best, it’s a terrible practice. Comping services sets a precedent, and soon word will spread that the salon will give away services to unhappy clients.

      Whether or not it’s legal depends on the state, IF you’re being compensated in accordance with federal labor laws. So, assuming you’re classified appropriately as an employee and the salon owner is ensuring you’re making at least minimum wage for each hour you’re working, it may be prohibited by state law under their wage deduction/wage theft statutes. If it’s not (some states like Florida don’t have any wage theft protections for employees), then you have to rely on employment contract terms. If you don’t have it expressly prohibited in your employment contract, and you’re being paid in accordance with the FLSA, you likely don’t have any recourse. In any case, I wouldn’t put up with it. I’d demand the owner compensate me, then have them agree to never arbitrarily deduct money from my check again–or I’d find another job.

  12. Thank you so much for your advice and for this website. I’m still a little confused if its legal or not. I live in Nyc, and I’ve been searching all over to figure out if it’s actually legal to dock my pay when the company chooses to comp a service. It’s been a pretty decent job besides this incident, so I would love to set a future standard if it is in fact illegal. I just can’t seem to find a difinative answer. Again thank you for a safe place to protect therapist employee rights.

  13. I recently left a salon where I was paid in cash every two weeks and all my tips were also in cash. I was told I could request a pay stub if I really wanted one but it seemed like it would irritate my boss and he spoke quickly and a lot about taxes and legalitys of things that I honestly didn’t understand. But I love the salon and the walk in was great.

    My question is… I don’t remember if I ever signed any paperwork and I have no paper trail on my end that I ever even worked there. They didn’t seem like shady people so I think I just may not understand how things worked but what am I supposed to do during tax time? Should I reach out to my old boss?

    • They are absolutely shady people. They’re paying you under the table, which means your income isn’t being reported. This is a huge problem for you and them. Reach out to them and ask them how you were classified for tax purposes. If you were considered an “independent contractor,” you will need a 1099 form from them. Unless you were misclassified (which I’m guessing you totally were since 99.9% of the IC’s I deal with are not actually renters), you’ll owe the IRS 15.3% of your gross earnings for self-employment tax. If you were classified as an employee (which I highly doubt), they need to provide you with a W-2 form. If the income wasn’t reported, you could have intense difficulty proving you made any money at all, so if you apply for a loan, a mortgage, or an apartment, you may not be approved because you can’t prove you earned money that wasn’t reported. I highly recommend that you search this site using the terms “misclassified,” “independent contractor,” and “know your rights.”


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