Hair Stylists May be Misclassified Workers

Last week, one of our blog articles covered the risk of worker misclassification in tech start-ups like Uber and Airbnb. According to recent articles from Think Progress and New York Magazine, however, a much older profession is also consistently subject to worker misclassification and consequent employee abuse: the hairstyling industry.

Only 10% of hair salons rely on direct employees, which means that the other 90% are either privately owned by individuals or hire independent contractors. Journalist Bryce Covert at Think Progress reports that this latter group has grown by 83 percent over the past decade, and is the most popular labor model within the industry.

An “independent contractor” employment classification means that stylists pay to rent a booth at a salon, using the space as a platform for their own independently-offered services. However, in many cases, they are still subject to the salon owner’s rules, being treated as traditional employees despite their classification as independent workers. Owners may demand to control stylists’ working hours, billing policies, and even which products they offer. In the meantime, because the stylists are not covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act as independent contractors, salon owners aren’t required to provide overtime pay, social security, Medicare, unemployment insurance, or even the minimum wage. Stylists working under this model are also not legally protected from discrimination.

Even in the rare instances where stylists are on payroll, unfair labor practices still abound. One woman who worked as a hairdresser in Michigan for 21 years disclosed that commissions for stylists can start at 45 to 55 percent of the total cost of a service. However, it’s common for salon owners to deduct product costs from stylists’ paychecks—and after that expense, commissions can drop as low as 25 percent. Working conditions, too, can be abysmal. “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,” the former hairdresser said.

In a 2008 survey of New York City workers, 45% of hairdressers and cosmetologists were not paid the minimum wage. Over 87% were denied meal breaks and made to work off the clock before or after their shifts, and over 98% did not receive the overtime pay they were owed. Usually, in the independent contracting model, if an unhappy client wants a refund, the money is taken out of the stylist’s paycheck in its entirety. Most salons don’t pay an hourly wage at all, simply giving stylists commission and often forcing them to rely on tips. “It’s very rare to find an owner that complies with wage and hour laws,” said Tina Alberino, a salon industry consultant who works with stylists whose rights have been violated. Even in upscale salons, higher prices are no guarantee that hairdressers are receiving fair treatment.

According to Alberino, labor practices lawsuits on behalf of stylists often aren’t successful. Most of the time, neither salon owners nor stylists keep detailed records, and investigations within the cosmetology industry can fall short. Salon practices that violate labor laws are so widespread that they are often accepted as standard, but ultimately, worker misclassification is a pervasive form of exploitation. The best way to safeguard against unfair labor practices and mistreatment is to stay informed of one’s rights as an independent contractor, and thereby become aware of potential worker misclassification.