Serving the Fullerton Community Since 1922

The Hornet

The Hornet

Serving the Fullerton Community Since 1922

The Hornet

Hairstylists say a new California law meant to protect them is actually keeping them from getting ahead

Owner of Trichology, Laura Mussche; Back left: Independent Contractor, Mia Wallace; Back Right: Independent Contractor, Jamie Foster in their Anaheim salon, Trichology Photo: courtesy of Trichology

By Annisa Charles and Margaret Trejo

Bright pink hair and tattooed arms are no issue for Laura Mussche. She is her own boss and she builds her own clientele. Mussche decides her own prices, hours and products used—making her own rules. Hustle determines who will make it in the industry and who will not.

Mussche was able to grow a long career as a stylist starting in the early 1990s because of the decisions she made and the lack of laws that protected her line of work to the point of opening her own salon, Trichology. Stylists starting out now may not have the same opportunities she had due to a controversial new bill.

Assembly Bill 5, passed in California in September 2019 and enacted in January 2020, requires salon owners to pay minimum wage to employees who are not considered independent contractors and give them benefits mandated under California state law.

The intent of the law is to give workers protection in industries where they are typically exploited. But in the salon industry, which is mostly independent contractors or stylists working on commission, the employee mandate is creating barriers for salon owners and emerging stylists.

In order to be exempt from employee status, the law states that an individual must, “schedule their own appointments… maintain their own business license… and issue a form 1099 to the salon or business owner from which they rent their business space.”

However, those who rent chairs have become more responsible for their appointments since the receptionists are unable to take appointments unless the client is calling for someone who works on commission.

Not only do independent contractors typically pay around $2,000 a month on products in order to keep the independence of creating their own hours, but they must now act as their own receptionist as well. It puts a lot of pressure on stylists to handle everything on their own.

While not everyone has been affected equally, many are scared of what is to come. Stylist Nicole Wheatstone says, “It’s caused more panic than anything else.”

Melanie, a commission stylist in Orange County for the past two years, explains how AB 5 has affected her as a small businesswoman trying to build a clientele. If she had to move salons right now, she would not know what to do or where to go since no one is taking commission stylists anymore due to the financial changes.

Melanie’s salon isn’t adhering to AB 5, meaning she’s working on a commission where she gets 60% of what she charges and the salon takes 40% . She doesn’t get any employee benefits and she is seen as an independent stylist to the salon. She asked to be identified only by her first name so her salon would not be targeted for not complying to the new law. She’s afraid she will lose her job if the salon followed the AB 5 guidelines and she wouldn’t be able to find work elsewhere.

“The intent of the law is to give workers protection in industries where they are typically exploited”

Kiera Henderson, who is an employee at Latitude Loft in Anaheim Hills and has now been doing hair for three and a half years, believes AB 5 is both a positive and a negative in the hair industry. “When you’re building a clientele in the beginning when you’re not as busy, you are still guaranteed an hourly pay, which is nice. And then you have a W-2 and proof of income. But I do feel like the salon takes a lot more of what you make in the end,” says Henderson.

Henderson expresses her worries for what she and other stylists would do if they had to find commission elsewhere since salons that are not adhering to the AB 5 law are not taking new stylists. This is because salons are now fearful that a new stylist could disrupt the culture and shut down the salon for not complying.

Henderson explains overall, most stylists would have to go to places that have always been employee based, like Supercuts or Ulta. The only issue is no way for a stylist to move to the salon floor and be a renter. Instead they would be considered an employee. The stylist would have to move from that Ulta or Supercuts to a salon that is rent-only to be a renter. Stylists at salons that are taking employees that can then move onto the floor as renters do not have to fear the loss of clients leaving them due to a move of salons.

For many stylists, the AB 5 law is making it harder for them to feel a sense of community within the workplace. After the law came into effect, Donna Stratchern, owner of Primarily Hair says, “It has forced me to make the stylist do more for themselves, taking away from our spirit of teamwork.” For most cosmetologists, where they work is where their family is.

Mussche was able to grow a long career as a stylist starting in the early 1990s because of the decisions she made and the lack of laws that protected her line of work to the point of opening her own salon, Trichology. Photo courtesy of Trichology

The law doesn’t benefit new beauty school graduates either. They start out with almost no clientele, depending on their friends and family as clients since they are fresh out of assisting a veteran stylist or have just graduated cosmetology school. They must work on commission to make ends meet.

Working on commission means for every client, the salon takes an agreed percentage of the sale.

With the AB 5 law, brand new stylists who are working on commission are having trouble finding somewhere they can do hair. The new bill now requires commission stylists to be full employees. The salons provide all the supplies that a stylist would normally provide themselves, but they assign them set hours and pay them minimum wage. They make a smaller commission, roughly 30% for each client. Since they are now considered official employees, they receive workman’s compensation, unemployment, insurance, professional liability insurance and depending on the size of the salon, health insurance.

Once they are able to maintain a steady clientele and bookings where they can pay the weekly rent while still making a profit, stylists will begin renting a chair and no longer work on commission.

When they begin their work as independent contractors, they will have to start paying for their own health insurance, put money towards their retirement, rent a station, be responsible for paying professional liability insurance every year and pay for supplies, products, and tools. Even though they are making more money, they are labeled as a small business.

This shift has upended the salon industry. In September, hair stylists and manicurists were added to the list of professions exempted from AB 5. However, that only applies to true independent contractors who already have a large clientele, not commission stylists who depend on salons to feed them clients.

Many salon owners are leaning towards not having any commission stylists because they cannot afford to pay for all the new costs, or they do not believe in giving hair stylists that many rules.

“We picked this job because we typically don’t have those ‘rules’ to abide by,” says Mussche, owner of Trichology salon and has been doing hair full-time for 25 years. “Telling them when their hours are, what they must wear, jobs they must perform and when to eat lunch and take breaks isn’t really what being a hairstylist is.”