A Culture of Abuse: How COVID-19 Educated the Beauty Industry

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.


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14 Responses

  1. Amen! One-thousand times all of this! My hope is that this current crisis wipes out the crooked salon-owners who don’t respect and cheat their staff (and call what they’re doing “character-building”).

    1. Me too–and I hope all the #girlbosses and “She”-EOs who treat salons like nothing more than part of their branding portfolio will go down with them. I swear, some days it feels like female marketing graduates move straight from college into our industry, despite not having any formal business management or salon experience. They don’t give a shit about exploiting their employees so long as they can continue to show off their chic facilities on Instagram and congratulate themselves in women’s business groups and trade magazines.

  2. A good read! I never looked at it this way until I read this article and this is indeed true and I think that’s why I cannot find a proper mentor in Atlanta to show me how to open a great salon. Guess I’ll show myself and acknowledge all the things I wish I had as an “independent contractor”…

  3. How legal is it for salon owners to charge stylist amounts like 1.00 a client for color charges. Or for assistants?

  4. I gave up my Salon of 15 years of hands on, guaranteed min wage because of not all but more then my share of lying,backstabbing stealing, openly drinking on the job after I left,hung over, slovenly(sent one home), unprofessional? stylists who acted as if they were INDEPENDENT STYLISTS. YET had no clientele. Then there were the stylist’s I paid to educate,who built a clientele and then open a Salon down the street from me with the supplies the stole from me, while other staff members stood by and said nothing to me. With the exception of one. Who is a friend today. I could have given paid vacations to the deserving stylists if it had not been for these deadbeats. My saddest day was having to let go of a dream. I thought after all the hard work of going to school and getting a license a stylist would come to me as a professional. I WAS WRONG!! I am now an Independent contractor and loving it.

    1. I often say there are three types of renters: the motivated, those who are new to the industry and too enthusiastic to know better, and the unemployable. Unfortunately for us all, the motivated ones who will certainly succeed at independent business ownership are relatively rare. :/ That’s why I will never own a rental salon and prefer to employ professionals. As a business owner, you need to be able to control your brand and manage employees so everyone acts in the best interest of the company–especially in this industry.

  5. Aleluya- 100% well scripted. I’ve been an employee for a company, I should say a franchise abide by a Brand – this salon culture or brand culture really brainwashed vulnerable young stylists. I’ve been a HD for 15 years and yes I was an employee too. Have seen lot of unfair business done ✅ by these brands . So, my employer had just shut down his business last nov-19 and I took a month for vacation in dec. Then I thought , hmm 🤔 now what ? So I went independent chair rental bc that’s what it was so the novelty . 3 Months into my own. permitted by my city law and government !
    But to be honest I think this solo thing it’s not for me. Yes there is more $ but I was missing the unity of a strong team and other benefits I used to have. Yes I suffered bullied , I saw favouritism towards others the list can go on. It was until I became more educated in my craft ppl started respecting me I earned it better. Things then changed for the better at that salon. But didn’t last long bc owner decided to shut down completely for personal reasons. I’m waiting to see what exactly this industry will unfold as a whole when this pandemic is over. I’m open for recruitment but I won’t take BS from no body regardless of that brand . Great article Btw.

  6. Tina, because of your matter of fact explanation, I am no longer working somewhere with that kind of business model. I would like to thank you on behalf of all stylist for not only speaking out against this practice, but for educating us on how the law is misrepresented by people out to take advantage of their stylists.
    It happened to me. I wouldn’t have understood the depth of why it was such a bad way to do business without you. You kind of saved my passion from being destroyed, and because I excited that situation I am not in as bad of shape as I could’ve been at this moment in time

    My goal is to open an Academy where I live with a organized program that will prepare future professionals for more than just passing their state board. I think your Survival Guide book would come as part of the text books in the kit. Thanks again for helping me personally see what was happening so I don’t let it happen again.

  7. A million times thank you! Covid-19 has definitely exposed the wolves in sheep’s clothing. As a new stylist (less than 5 years) salon owners (at least in my experience) prey on the “less informed”. Your article has saved me from losing everything to these soulless thugs and I am forever grateful.

  8. Hi Tina!

    First I must tell you if it wasn’t for your blogs and direct sources, I would be in worse shape than I’m currently in. We are all so blessed for your uncanny ability to depict very complicated circumstances in a matter of facts in forming blogs.

    In saying this THANK YOU!

    My question atm is that I have been told by an attorney that my contract is “iron clad” in favor only to the salon owner. It in fact has the force majeure included but further states that regardless “we have to extend our contracts in the event of” and states that in no way even under impracticability, in capability, aka governmental forced closures release us as business owners under this contract from responsibility to pay them for every week, by ACH! If we decline allowing them to directly take rent via ACH we are in default of our contracts.

    Further more, this particular salon in Texas, who owns 9+ commercial properties and purchased 4 more and leased them during the closure, is saying that we have to pay for the weeks we were forced to close (ON TOP OF THE EXTENSION TO OUR LEASE AMOUNTS) per TDLR and the government body in Texas even though we were told by TDLR if we are caught trying to earn, we will receive up to or all; 180 days in jail, multiple citations and risk losing our licenses.

    Now we know they received assistance during this time from SBA/PPP/Donations etc… we even know that a lot of times, these salon owners have a corporation that they then purchase the commercial properties and then turn around and create LLC’s to “do business as” XYZ Salon.

    The very sad thing is there is a GENUINE LACK OF LAWYERS who even know the laws or anything pertaining to our industry to defend us.

    I’m in this situation right now. Along with thousands of others.

    The lawyer said; “because the landlord included this under his force majeure clause, (automatic extensions of weeks closed do to any potential event that would in effect save the licensed professional, “is allowed, even though it may feel as a forced contractual amendment” to the independent business owners who are/were running their own business in a suite, because it states that he can do this in the contract I signed under my LLC.

    He did say that however, “they make no mention of you having to sign ANY additional agreements to this clause and therefore if it is presented to me to sign, changing the original terms and conditions of my initial contract, to include adding any additional “balloon payments or additional charges” in light of the weeks we were forced to close per the government that would state in addition to the already determined weekly rate, that is not legal, unless I agreed to it in the initial contract,” to which I did not.

    The owners are in essence doing these things to their tenants;

    • Playing semantics/word games, but only verbally not giving us the “proof” of what they’re saying to us directly in writing. (Which is that we will owe for those weeks at a discounted rate of 1/2 of the weeks rents on top of the original contract agreement rate.)

    • They have suggested that “we can use our PPP sba grant money because they didn’t receive enough to cover the entire period.” (I didn’t get any grants, or PPP from SBA. We all know where that money went.)
    > But wouldn’t it also be true that in the event an independent salon owner did receive aid to use for their vendor expenses and business credit card pmts and then to survive on what little would be left, would not be something we as business owners could write off in our taxes being that rent is our highest expense?

    • They’re also not giving us any clear written indication so that we may show a lawyer these tactics being used and instead literally ignore our texts, calls, and emails if it is asking politely for this information to be specified so that we have a clear understanding of what they expect upon our return.

    ** Not all are doing it this way, I have many others stating that the owners of the salon they lease from actually held zoom meetings like an employee setting, and said it’s been agreed that everyone will pay x on top of their normal contractual agreement in rent because they don’t want to use the sba money they received on what it was intended for.

    > But in my case; the salon owner has nothing to do with his salon businesses other than owning them, and having a hand full of employees and 1099 leasing agents “handle it.”

    > Ive never met the owner and his agents sign and go over our contracts as well send mass texts to communicate as a while instead of individually and independently business to business.

    • They are pulling a form of “switch and bait.”

    • They are changing the contract terms verbally. By saying instead of having 24 hour access, you all must work staggered times and be 6ft apart and the list is LONG! But not in writing.

    I have nothing to show my lawyer it’s all hearsay for my case.. what would you suggest here? Is this legal? To make it appear one way in writing but not stating changes they’re verbally advocating?

    I’m genuinely needing help navigating through these imposters and getting this in writing so that I may be free and clear of having no means to defend the abuse.

    I also have underlying health issues that cause me personally to be high risk. So now at this moment, my only defense in asking for a pause until this is over and or released from my lease is to expose my personal health issues that are honestly my fears to return while this is still a National Emergency Declaration/pandemic.

    Type 2 diabetes, asthmatic, compromised immune system due to other health issues I suffer genetically and a elementary aged child with asthma as well at home that I’m homeschooling because all schools are closed and have been since spring break!

    Do I have any recourse? What are our rights under the law in Texas for licensed cosmetologists because the other problem is these salon owners are not licensed and trained and don’t know jack about our law and rules book.

    Am I missing something? Is their any light at the end of our tunnels? Anything I can say to my lawyer to point him in the right direction industry law specifics?

    Thank you,

    I appreciate you Tina in advance!


    1. Hey there!

      I’m so sorry this is happening to you, but your attorney is absolutely right (at least for now) about it being legal. Whether or not that remains the case is up to us to bring before our representatives (and/or the courts), preferably in organized groups. You absolutely should not be forced to choose between your life and your finances, and that’s what’s being asked of you. Under normal circumstances, asking you to stick to the agreement you signed wouldn’t be unreasonable, but these are far from normal circumstances. It doesn’t take much to point that out to the public (via the media), your representative, or a judge. Unfortunately for us, that means we have to be the ones to force lawmakers to address the issue.

      I wouldn’t sign or allow anything until you’ve received confirmation in writing, but honestly, I’d break with this company ASAP. They’ve shown you what they think of you and every other professional they lease space to.

      An easy way out may be to find someone else to transfer your lease to. Given that so many professionals are making idiots of themselves on the news in Texas, I would imagine that wouldn’t be a difficult task, lol. If you’re able to replace yourself, they should have no valid argument to prohibit you from ending your agreement. At that point, it’ll be obvious they’re not concerned about their revenue but about squeezing each of you dry for the foreseeable future. They may win in court, but they certainly won’t fare well against the public. With so many locations, I’m sure they don’t want even 10% of their tenants going to the media (social or traditional).

      You have leverage here. If I were you, I’d ask your attorney if it would be worth it to threaten to use it. Professionals like you who are medically compromised cannot safely return to work now and may not be able to until we have a vaccine and/or reliable treatment options. Hearing that a business owner is forcing small business owners to pay rent on units they can’t use would certainly not play well in the community, especially considering your situation as an immunocompromised person. Typically, we’d consider this the nuclear option, but I would consider it appropriate at this point, since the existing law isn’t able to address MAJOR flaws in how businesses are handling the pandemic.

  9. Used to work for a salon like that (and thanks to your blog, was able to break away!). I’m now extremely grateful that during this time I work for a franchised salon where the owner made sure every stylist in his 16 locations got unemployment money for the time that we closed. I can’t even imagine working at the other salon during this time! 😬

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