Making a Living Cutting Hair, Before and After Sandy

The reigning dining mindset in New York City right now is “eat out, tip double” in hopes of helping the hourly restaurant workers who lost wages because of Hurricane Sandy’s devastating after-effects. I’d like to propose an amendment: “Eat out, tip double, get a damn haircut.”

Stacey has styled hair in Manhattan since 2005, and has been kept away from her downtown workplace for more than a week now. I caught up with her about how she’s been faring in post-Sandy New York City. Check it out, and then go get your bangs trimmed and nails done. It’s for the economy!

KASE WICKMAN: Thank you so much for agreeing to talk to me a little bit about your experiences during Hurricane Sandy and after. To begin with, can you tell me a little bit about where you work and what you do?
STACEY: Hi Kase! It’s my pleasure! Sure thing. I work at a hair salon located in downtown Manhattan. I am a hairstylist.

What neighborhood in NYC do you live in? Did you have any storm damage, or lose power at home?
I live in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn. Fortunately it’s high ground here, so the only damage I’ve seen are downed trees. We briefly had a loss of Internet connection, but we’ve been embarrassingly lucky to keep the power, heat and all during this disaster.

What was the most recent day you worked, and how many scheduled work days have you missed because of the hurricane?
My work week is Tuesday/Wednesday, Friday/Saturday. I last worked Saturday, October 27th. Because of the power outage downtown, I missed my full work week—the four days. 

Wow, and it’s not like you can work from home. I’m not sure how scheduling works and how many walk-in clients you typically get. Let’s try and figure out about how much you lost in wages by being stranded in Brooklyn this week. How much do you make off a typical appointment?
My price just got raised to $110. (I started at $65, about six years ago once I completed my apprenticeship). Once a percentage is taken off the top for the salon, my commission gets me $40 per haircut. I’d say an average day is six clients, so that’s $244, and I work four days a week, so that’s $975. After taxes, 401K (self-funded, no employer contribution) and health care ($200 per paycheck, twice a month), I estimate that I take home about half of that at $487.

How important are tips to your overall income?
Tips are a huge help, obviously. Usually my tips range from $15-20. An average day is about $100. So that’s an additional $400 a week. Again, that’s an average and weeks can vary greatly according to calendar day/seasonal/economy/presidential debates. (Incidentally, the presidential debates have been a real disaster for clients booking in for haircuts, so it’s been unseasonably slow this particular October.)

And you applied for the federal disaster unemployment aid offered to New Yorkers, right? How did you find out about that?
I applied for the disaster unemployment offered to New Yorkers after it was mentioned by Gov. Cuomo during one of the press conferences.

What did you have to do to apply? How long did it take to apply, and how long will it take for you to get money?
Applying was easy. I called on Sunday morning around 9 a.m. and only had to wait a half hour before an operator got to me. (I hear the waits are much longer now). An extremely nice staffer apologized for my long wait time and asked me a few questions, including if I had lost work due to the effects of Hurricane Sandy, and when I was expected to return (today, Tues., Nov 6th). I was on the phone with her for no more than 10 minutes. I had to say that I was a citizen and give her my New York state drivers license, confirm my home address, home number, employer, social security number. She gave me instructions on how to verify my claim and how to do it (on Wednesday). I don’t have a sense of how long it will take to get paid.

Do they reimburse you your whole estimated pay for the time lost, or is it some set amount?
The pay comes out of this formula, and I’m paraphrasing from a recorded message: they take 1/26 of the highest quarter wages, and if it’s less than a certain amount the percentage is 1/25th, not to exceed $405. That is the normal formula for unemployment insurance that everyone pays into with our taxes.

So it’s a big help, but it’s not close to what you’d be bringing home if you hadn’t been physically unable to work.
Right. And it’s a good question — what if our subways were constructed/modernized to prevent this sort of massive loss? What if ConEd had an updated energy deployment system? I imagine that New York City is literally in the dark ages compared to Japan with its excellent transit services. Would we have been able to go to work post-hurricane if our power and transit systems were modern?

Do you know if your colleagues are also filing for aid?
I have had two colleagues, one receptionist who gets paid hourly and one colorist who is commission-based like me, file. One actually just texted me that unless the NY state rules are changed, we won’t get paid for this one week of work, as it counts as an “unpaid week” or “waiting week”. So, that feels unclear. I just looked at the press release and it says that unemployment insurance would expand to cover those not normally covered. If it is a waiting week and I don’t get paid for this week away from work, it’s going to be a problem.

I saw that you posted a link to the unemployment info on your Facebook, and some people seemed surprised to find out that that help even existed.
I posted a link on Facebook specifically so that my colleagues would see that unemployment insurance is available. I think a lot do not realize that they are automatically covered because we pay taxes. So many of my colleagues live close to the poverty line, despite being employed, but consider welfare as something for other people. There have been sotto voce discussions in the staff room that the income of an assistant qualifies him or her for food stamps.

Do you have any advice for others in service industries? What about New York as a whole?
Hm… advice? Well, for me, I can see that I really do need to create a financial cushion for myself, because it looks like these sort of once-a-century storms will be occurring more frequently and may continue to impact my ability to work. So, that is scary. I am thinking about how I can support my income doing part-time work that is not commission-based or doing part-time work where I can work remotely. I am lucky in that I am college-educated and have experience working outside of the hair industry and maybe those skills are something I can lean on.

What do you think we need to do to get back to normal — or a new normal, as the case may be.
I think New York City needs to change. We need to rethink our city and the areas that are built upon landfill that were originally water and marshy areas. Maybe they need to return to nature. Or, if we as a society decide that we’re going to continue to inhabit these areas with homes and businesses, we need to support environmentally-sustainable architecture that can handle massive flooding. Obviously our utilities need to change quite a bit.

I, for one, would like to get support for having to be on the job even when I don’t have clients. That seems fair since my employer requires me to be on-site. And I’d like to think there would be some insurance for wage/commission-coverage when I can’t get to work because of a disaster. Of course, so many service workers, myself included, don’t get paid for work not done. No vacation pay, no sick pay. It would be nice to have that sort of coverage. Taking a trip is always a double hit of spending money on vacation plus not getting paid, so it’s a double-whammy. (I guess that makes being sick a whammy!) We live a little closer to the edge. This city runs on service workers, so this situation represents a big challenge.


Kase Wickman writes features and pins baked goods in Brooklyn. She worked from home last week. You can visit her on Twitter.



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