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Hair stylists, nail techs struggle as COVID-19 curtails business

The silence of the hair clippers was deafening.

When salons were shuttered due to coronavirus concerns in March, bangs and debt grew in unison for workers in the beauty industry.

“I tried to hold out at first,” says a veteran stylist who has been working in Las Vegas for over a decade, “because I was just waiting to hear when we were going to go back. When I ran out of money and I needed to feed my kids, then I was like, ‘I have to do what I have to do.’”

This meant working out of her home.

“Clients were asking,” she says. “You want to be sensitive to peoples’ beliefs and their situations, so I didn’t reach out to anybody, but I did have a tremendous amount of clients that were calling me, still wanting services.”

Problem is, the stylist was putting her career on the line: working outside of the salon is illegal for her.

According to Adam Higginbotham, deputy executive director of the Nevada State Board of Cosmetology, violators could face fines and/or the loss of their cosmetology license.

This has been the plight of beauty industry professionals, from hair stylists to nail workers, who had to weather a two-month shutdown of their places of business — and now potentially face another one. Many of them have had to make the difficult decision of either working in defiance of the law or not working at all.

”Everybody was petrified of losing their livelihood,” says the stylist, who spoke on condition of anonymity because she was afraid of losing her license, “but they had to do something in order to feed their children. It’s a very hush-hush thing. You just don’t talk about it.”

Surviving by a hair

It all began decades ago while shearing Barbie’s locks.

“I was sad that they didn’t grow back,” Amanda Deborski recalls with a laugh, of trimming her doll’s bangs when she was a kid.

And with that, a career in hair styling was born.

In March, Deborski achieved her dream of purchasing her own business and launching Revolution Salon in the Southwestern side of town.

It was four days before the coronavirus shutdown.

“It definitely has been a challenge,” Deborski says of attempting to build a business during a pandemic. “We still have all the same overhead, and then for two months, we didn’t have the ability to generate any income.”

Overhead costs are significant for workers in this industry, from business owners to stylists alike.

Most stylists rent their booths at a given salon, paying an average of $800-$2,000 a month. Their beauty supply products run an additional $1,500-$4,000, depending on the services they provide.

Those stylists are independent contractors, and when the coronavirus spread, a system eventually was put in place to provide unemployment assistance to such workers. But it didn’t launch until mid-May — and a number of stylists say they still haven’t received any money from the program.

“Everybody was out of income for that entire two months,” Deborski says. “I didn’t pass that rental income down to my stylists — if they don’t have a place to work, they’re not on the hook. But as a business owner, I’m still paying for all the rent and expenses while we were shut down.”

For stylists, there is no safety net when salons close.

“If there’s not somebody in your chair currently, you’re not getting paid,” explains Jenn Kim, a hair stylist at Look Style Society in Town Square. “If I can’t fill my book, there’s no money coming in. So it can get really scary, really quick.”

“A week-to-week adventure”

She loves her job so much that she took a second one in order to keep the first.

Emily DeAngelo has been a nail tech for close to seven years now.

But when COVID hit, she had to resort to seeking additional employment to supplement her main gig.

“It was just getting seriously challenging,” explains DeAngelo of maintaining her income solely doing nails. “Obviously, beauty is like the first thing to go when people have to rework their budget.”

Even though salons and nail parlors reopened in May, many hair stylists and nail techs are still feeling the pinch of the pandemic.

“The time that people are going between appointments is way longer,” notes Amber Harlan, a hair stylist and owner of The Noise Project salon at Fergusons Downtown. “People are working at home right now, so they’re not really taking care of themselves like they would. I’ve had clients for 10 years-plus who lost their jobs. I’ve had four weddings this year that have all been canceled and rescheduled.”

And then there are the uncertainties associated with the ongoing pandemic.

“The past few weeks, we’ve had probably eight to 10 clients cancel because of COVID,” Harlan notes. “They’ve been in contact with people who’ve had COVID. That’s just a week-to-week adventure for us, people canceling.”

Still, Harlan is bullish on business picking up.

“I definitely think the rebirth is about to occur,” she says.

Jenn Kim notes that she has successfully re-established much of her clientele.

“I’m kind of back to normal,” she says. “It’s not 100 percent by any means, but I see the light at the end of the tunnel.”

For Deborski, there was a silver lining to having business disrupted by the coronavirus: it gave her and her husband the time to do some remodeling.

Hence, a graffiti rose has blossomed in the front of the salon.

“The rose has a lot of significance to me,” Deborski explains. “When a rose grows, a lot of people just think of it needing sun, but first, that little seed has to go into the damp soil and combust.

“And so, when we’re in times that are dark and we feel like everything is falling apart, it’s just a reminder that, ‘What if it’s the beginning of something beautiful to grow?’” she continues. “Even though I bought this salon four days before it shut down, what if it’s an opportunity for something beautiful to grow out of this?”

Contact Jason Bracelin at jbracelin@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0476. Follow @JasonBracelin on Twitter and @jbracelin76 on Instagram.

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