Seat at the table

A new organization represents the interests of nearly 40,000 hair stylists in the state at a time when the profession is threatened

Gabrielle Saulsbery//April 12, 2021//

Seat at the table

A new organization represents the interests of nearly 40,000 hair stylists in the state at a time when the profession is threatened

Gabrielle Saulsbery//April 12, 2021//

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Christine Modica, co-owner of Stag House, trimming hair at her salon in Bergen County.
Christine Modica, co-owner of Stag House, coloring hair at her salon in Bergen County. – PHOTOS: STAG HOUSE

Christine Modica didn’t intend to be a barber. She only went to beauty school to earn enough money to then put herself through journalism school.

But she liked people — “so much I wanted to touch them,” she said — so she never shifted careers. Instead, her skills grew as time went on; she opened her own salon, Stag House in Bergen County, and now she and her co-owner employee 14 staff members.

Last year, the barber, salon owner and employer took on yet another role when she started the New Jersey Salon and Spa Alliance: advocate.

There are 39,000 hair stylists in New Jersey. That’s not a small number, bigger than the populations of many Hunterdon County or Gloucester County towns, and more than half the size of Salem County. But these 39,000 people, many of them women and people of color, had no advocate, no administration, nobody to lobby for and speak up for them, until Modica created the NJSSA.

“Our laws are dictated to us. Anytime there’s an [entity] that dictates our laws, there should be an alliance. When we got shut down that was my first thought. Who is going to stand up for us,” Modica said.

Like other licensing boards, the New Jersey State Board of Cosmetology and Hairstyling is governed by the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs. “The reality is, any statute [from the DCA] is to make sure the consumer is covered, and nothing is designed around the people that operate the business,” Modica said.

A longtime New Jersey Business & Industry Association member, Modica reached out to Chief Executive Officer Michele Siekerka for guidance and help. She read Siekerka as an ally and a voice for the independent business community and, Modica, said, Siekerka didn’t disappoint: She introduced more spa and salon owners to the alliance and, more importantly, brought the group’s concerns to the Legislature.

“The NJBIA has given us a bigger voice than anything,” Modica said. “Being able to look at the bills that’ll impact our industry, and we’re actually able to talk to state board and get the answers [on questions we have about rules], to say ‘we understand this, but why this?’ Sometimes the laws change and nobody bothered to ask what the after effect will be.”

No focused aid has been directed to salons and spas during the pandemic, yet about 25% of salons are expected to close this year, Modica said. She said her business lost $250,000 last year. James Alba, owner of B Hive Organic Salon in Hillsdale, co-leads the alliance, and said his revenue throughout the pandemic has also been down significantly from pre-pandemic levels.

“We were closed for three months, arguably say four. You lost 33% of your income right there. That’s a given, [Paycheck Protection Program] aside or government help aside. But you also opened to people that were fearful,” Alba said.

A client sits for a haircut at Stag House.
A client sits for a haircut at Stag House.

Last year’s shutdown fell right after an expected yearly lull. Quarter one is never the rock star quarter, and shops were shut all of the second, when business typically picks back up. Overall, Alba estimates salons are down around 40%.

But while no focused aid was offered and client-touching businesses stayed closed longer than many others, Alba is quick to point out that hairdressers and barbers weren’t even on the vaccine schedule. Unless they fell into a different category due to age or medical conditions, they must wait until April 19. Bills affecting the industry have also been introduced, like Senate Bill 1197, which would require cosmetology and hairstyling licensees to complete domestic violence sensitivity and response training; and the “pink tax bill” Senate Bill 2039, which would ban salons and other businesses from charging higher prices for women’s goods and services than men’s.

While these issues are important, salons are struggling and Modica said now is not the time for new rules, including a rule that would require three hours of training when they could be servicing clients.

The biggest challenge posed by the pandemic has been a layered personnel issue. Salons are contending with stylists offering at home services—against the law in New Jersey—so both employees and clients are being lost to a backyard. Modica even had a former employee advertise house calls on Instagram and Facebook who tried to poach Stag House clients.

Additionally, a moratorium on licensing lasted long enough that beauty school students, permitted to work in a salon after half their schooling was done, were at risk of having their permits expire. Beauty school graduates couldn’t take their practical exam, so they were unable to begin their career to make back the money they spent on school. Beauty school teacher trainees were unable to take their exams, so they weren’t able to move on to teaching.

The NJBIA was the lifeline the NJSSA needed to gain a say in ongoing legislation and rules that affected the industry.

“Once we gained a relationship with the state board, we ended up locking down monthly meetings with them. They like that we exist and they want us to exist … knowing what struggles are happening out there in the industry makes their job a little easier,” Modica said. “Prior to us, laws would come through under our feet and we would be like ‘this is the law now?’ Now James and I are at the helm for that. If there’s a bill coming through, James and I are able to [have a say in it].”

With the help of NJBIA, Modica and Alba were able to get student permits extended and got an attestation for beauty school graduates to work 30 hours in a salon in lieu of taking their practical exam. Now, they’re working on an attestation for beauty school teacher-trainees, of which there are more than 100 waiting to take final steps necessary to be able to teach.

“Schools have a severe shortage of teachers. Without teachers, we don’t have students. Without students, we don’t have jobs,” Modica said. “Every day, someone is looking to hire. It’s really impossible to hire. I’m afraid it’s an early death for the salon industry in New Jersey. Every single downtown has a salon. We’re a staple in a community. It’s sad to see it die.”