Reporter Bryce Covert took a close look at the dominant model of employment in hair salons, where most stylists work as independent contractors — meaning they pay to rent a booth at a salon, yet often remain subject to the owner’s rules, including hours, billing, and product use. Meanwhile, this employment classification means that salon owners don’t have to pay for their workers’ social security, Medicare, unemployment insurance, or the employer’s share of income tax. Under this model, stylists also aren’t covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act, which requires employers to pay at least minimum wage and overtime, and aren’t legally protected against discrimination.
According to Sarah Leberstein, a senior staff attorney at the National Employment Law Project, it’s standard practice for salon owners to not pay stylists an hourly rate — forcing them to subsist on tips. Covert reports that salons and spas with no direct employees (relying exclusively on independent contractors) have grown 83 percent over the past decade — and that’s the model employed by over 90 percent of salons today.
Unfortunately, the situation isn’t much better for stylists who are on payroll. Covert spoke to a woman who’s worked as a hairdresser in Michigan for 21 years, who said that commissions for stylists usually start out around 45 to 55 percent of the cost of the haircut. However, it’s common practice for salon owners to deduct the cost of the products used from the stylist’s paycheck — meaning that the commission often ends up being as low as 25 percent. “Most days I worked 10 hours straight without one single moment to go to the bathroom, let alone sit down or have a bite to eat,” she said.
The average hairdresser in the U.S. makes under $28,000 a year, which makes paying off the cost of the license required to work nearly impossible. (According to a study of New York City hair-salon workers from 2008, 45 percent made less than minimum wage — and 98 percent weren’t paid overtime.) License requirements vary by state, but aspiring stylists typically have to complete over 1,000 hours of practice. Most log their hours at beauty schools — for-profit institutions where tuition is often over $10,000, and students are rarely compensated for their work — or through unpaid apprenticeships.
Tina Alberino, a consultant who works with stylists who believe their rights have been violated, says that higher prices at salons aren’t a guarantee that hairdressers are treated fairly. “Whether it’s upscale, middle tier, or low scale, it doesn’t really matter,” she said. “Exploitation is likely to be happening at any of them.”