Seema Sudhir has been a hairstylist for 25 years. The South Asian beautician owns JJ Hairstylist and Beauty Salon, a well-known spot in the Rexdale area of Toronto. A friendly face, affordable services and passion for her craft helped propel her business into the success it is today. But as of this week, her salon has been closed for seven months by the Ontario government.

“It has been such a shock,” she said. “I was wondering, how was I going to put food on the table? How do I pay the bills?”

Difficulties brought by the COVID-19 pandemic, including the Ontario government’s erratic closures and reopenings, have left hair salons across the province struggling — affecting their owners’ and employees’ financial, social and mental well-being.

The Ontario government announced this week that it would be moving up the reopening date for hair salons and other services as part of Step 2 of the provincial reopening. This should have happened sooner. But until the pandemic is over, Ontario should revise its pandemic opening guidelines so that in case of future waves of the virus, salons can close later and reopen sooner, and adopt measures to protect this industry from further devastation.

Policies during the pandemic have been unfair to the personal services sector, which has a high concentration of female entrepreneurs.

Under attack from every direction

The problems faced by Ontario hairdressers are multifaceted. The government’s haphazard reopening policies have driven many hairstylists out of business, subsequently compelling them to take on heavy debts for survival and endangering their mental health. An underground black market for hairstylists has also emerged, undermining the industry’s legitimacy as a registered trade.

Data from Ontario’s COVID-19 data tracking tool shows there were nine recorded outbreaks in “personal service settings” (a category that includes salons) from June 12, 2020 — when salons reopened following the first lockdown — until Nov. 23, the start of the second lockdown in Toronto and Peel. Subsequently, during the regional-based reopening between Feb. 10 and April 3, 2021, there were 12 outbreaks in this category as the more contagious B.1.1.7, or Alpha, variant took hold.

By comparison, in the “other workplaces” segment of the workplace outbreak tracker — which includes warehousing, shipping and distribution centres and construction work — there were 394 reported outbreaks in the first period and 448 in the second.

Despite the glaring contrast in outbreak numbers, the construction and logistics industries have consistently been deemed essential throughout the pandemic. Non-essential construction projects were forced to close only after outrage over climbing case numbers, while salons have been subject to stringent restrictions.

“While the government was deeming us non-essential, every time we reopened, we were the first place people ran to,” said Franco Cuglietta, owner of Identity Hair Salon in Sault Ste. Marie.

There is a gendered distinction to these industries. Women make up 80 per cent of the hairstyling profession; meanwhile, men dominate the construction industry, representing 87 per cent of its workforce. Ontario’s Minister of Labour Monte McNaughton has been an advocate for women entering the skilled trades to be entrepreneurs — allocating funds to replace the Ontario College of Trades (OCOT) with a new, “efficient” system and recruiting prospective students to the sector. But policies during the pandemic have been unfair to the personal services sector, which has a high concentration of female entrepreneurs.

Hairstyling is one of 144 registered trades in Canada. Stylists must receive a Red Seal endorsement certificate after undergoing training in infection-control and sanitation measures. Despite having extensive experience with health and safety measures necessary to prevent COVID-19 outbreaks, hairstylists have been consistently categorized as “personal care settings,” lumping them in with nail salons and tattoo artists — professions that don’t require mandatory certifications.

There is no governing body overseeing formal licensing and educational standards for either nail technicians or tattoo artists in Ontario besides optional apprenticeship and training programs offered by various institutions. Hairstylists, however, are mandated to undergo rigorous training in order to work legally in Ontario — they must join the OCOT, complete a two-year apprenticeship training and pay a yearly membership fee to the OCOT upon becoming licensed.

These prolonged closures have ultimately led to a loss of clientele for hairstylists, especially when some salons were forced to compete with those across the street from them during the regional reopenings in the spring of 2021. Rajvinder Kaur (no relation to the authors), owner of Salon Miraj in Rexdale, felt the region-specific reopening approach hit her business hard as her clients simply travelled across the street to York Region for their haircuts.

“It takes years to establish a business with loyal clients, and only a minute for them to leave,” she said. “We’ve been closed for months and I lost clients to salons just a few minutes away from me.”

Sudhir and Kaur also fear that in populous cities like Toronto, the province’s reopening frameworks further exacerbated an already growing black market for hairstylists, with licensed and non-licensed stylists closing up shop and providing overpriced haircuts for cash in basements and garages to capitalize on high demand.

Those who own and work in salons in lower-income communities have suffered a greater burden than many others during the pandemic, and have often had a more difficult time accessing and navigating the complexities of government programs than some other business owners.

Stylists in marginalized communities face additional challenges

Tanya Hill is a board member for the Ontario Professional Hairstylists’ Association (OPHA) and has been a hairstylist in Ottawa for 30 years. The OPHA acts as a regulatory body for the industry and voices stylists’ concerns at the policy-making table.

“We’re the third-largest trade out of 144 trades and we’re falling in between the public health units and the Ministry of Labour,” Hill said. “The greatest problem is that no one wants to talk to us about our concerns.”

Throughout the pandemic, both the federal and provincial governments have provided income supports to help small businesses facing financial hardship due to lockdowns. The federal government, for example, offered the Canada Emergency Business Account (CEBA) for small businesses — a $40,000 loan first provided in April 2020 and then expanded in December to provide an additional $20,000. Concurrently, the provincial government provided up to $20,000 in grants and loans to businesses with the Ontario Small Business Support Grant in December.

But Kaur and Hill said it has not been enough. “I need to pay back $20,000 to the (federal) government by 2022, but I also have to pay for rent and utilities — with no income coming in,” said Kaur, who accessed a CEBA loan at the start of the pandemic.

Hill pays approximately $150,000 for one year’s rent. The COVID support grants barely covered half of her expenses. “Yes, we should be fiscally responsible by having a (savings) cushion,” she said. “But how many people have a cushion for seven (or) 14 months?”

For salon owners like Cuglietta and Hill, the solution to their financial losses is simple: raise their prices. They know their clientele will be able to afford the increase. But for hairstylists operating in marginalized communities or who are racialized themselves, it’s not so simple.

Sudhir and Kaur recognize that members of their local South Asian community can only afford to pay so much for salon services when they have pressing financial concerns that have been exacerbated by the pandemic. “Sometimes clients will pay you a high price once, but for the second time, maybe they don’t have that much income to pay us again,” Sudhir said.

The flourishing underground market has also allowed previously commission-based employees to earn more money in cash instead of working in a traditional salon subject to government closures. Hill said there is further uncertainty and stress because salons cannot guarantee employment to their returning staff — who will have to fill the impending backlog of appointments — if they are forced to make financial cutbacks.

“I think they need to pay more attention to our sector because all my stylists are six feet apart, wear face masks and shields, have log sheets, disinfect chairs (and) tools,” Cuglietta said. “To have your livelihood put on pause, not once, not twice, but three times, is very difficult.”

Revising policies to better support salons

The myriad issues faced by Ontario’s hairstylists are institutional and need to be rectified to save these businesses. Given the low risk of infection and high burden to salon owners and workers, hair salons should have been allowed to reopen sooner as part of Ontario’s COVID-19 recovery plan.

The first step in aiding this sector would be to revise the province’s pandemic reopening categories, considering the low risk of contracting COVID-19 in salons, to ensure hairstylists are not misappropriately designated in the same category as non-registered trades. In the event of future waves of the virus, they need to be able to close later and reopen sooner to prevent further devastation to the industry. Within Ontario’s current three-phase reopening framework, hair salons should be moved to Step 1 and allowed to reopen sooner with appropriate occupancy limits, disinfection and other safety-control measures in place.

Further, the provincial government should implement a more ambitious paid sick leave program that ensures the financial and psychological security of all precarious workers in Ontario, including salon staff. The province has instituted three temporary paid sick days for Ontario employees and the federal government has provided the Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit to help workers. But these are not enough. A more universal program is needed to fill the gaps in current economic supports.

Those who own and work in salons in lower-income communities have suffered a greater burden than many others during the pandemic, and have often had a more difficult time accessing and navigating the complexities of government programs than some other business owners. Kaur, for example, found it overwhelming to navigate government websites while accessing the CEBA.

In recovery plans, it is important to recognize these differential impacts and make sure resources and investments are made to support these small business owners — most of whom are women — who play a key role in their local community economies.

For an industry that has proven it can prevent outbreaks, contact-trace and uphold public safety requirements, it’s high time justice was ensured for hairstylists.

“Safety starts with us,” Sudhir said. “Politicians need to start listening to small businesses. Talk to us and you will find out what needs to be done.”