Hairdressers, salon owners prepare for tense return to work as COVID-19 lockdowns lift

By | May 24, 2020

As a hairdresser, Andrew MacDonald has found himself one of the most sought-after tradespeople as COVID-19 lockdowns slowly begin to lift — but he’s approaching the return to business with a heavy dose of caution.

“I’m looking forward to seeing my clients, but I’m not really looking forward to doing work under such high-stress conditions,” he told Checkup host Duncan McCue.

“As a hairdresser, I was not planning on being a front-line worker.”

Hair salons are among the handful of businesses being allowed to reopen in some provinces like Alberta and Manitoba. But they remain closed in Ontario, Yukon and Newfoundland and Labrador.

MacDonald runs his hairdressing business out of his house in Saskatoon. While he says it’s afforded him some flexibility, it’s left him near the back of the line when it comes to acquiring personal protective equipment and other supplies he’ll now need to get back to work.

Hairdresser Andrew MacDonald, left, is approaching the return to business with a heavy dose of caution. (Submitted by Andrew MacDonald)

“I don’t have the clout that somebody who has 16 chairs does to go and buy PPE,” he said.

“I’ve actually been trying for about a month to get stuff, and it’s either ridiculously expensive or they won’t sell it to us because they’re giving it to the health-care workers.”

MacDonald, who has been working in the hairdressing business for 37 years, says he’s had to raise his prices in order to pay for the equipment that will allow him to safely serve customers, from face masks to Plexiglas screens.

Some business owners in the service industry have added COVID-19 surcharges to their bills, in order to help them cover both PPE costs and to slowly recover after months of lockdown sent revenues into a free-fall.

‘Nerves and anxiety’ upon return to work

Allison Marinelli, co-owner of Prep Hair salon in Winnipeg, says she doesn’t plan to charge customers a COVID-19 surcharge, but doesn’t begrudge merchants who do.

“We’re not interested in charging a COVID fee, but if some businesses need that to survive, then I totally understand that,” Marinelli told McCue.

With a staff of 25 people, the family-owned and operated Prep Hair has the advantage of scale that smaller business owners may not enjoy.

Allison Marinelli, co-owner of Prep Hair salon in Winnipeg, says all staff and customers are required to wear masks so that both groups feel safe while helping prevent the spread of COVID-19. (Submitted by Allison Marinelli)

Marinelli and her sister had been stocking up on PPE and making plans for what work would look like when lockdown orders in Manitoba began to lift in early May.

She says “there was a lot of nerves and anxiety” among staff to return to work at first.

“We have the door locked, so nobody can just walk in, which is the first thing that makes us feel comfortable,” she said.

Customers text or call on the phone when they’ve arrived for an appointment before they’re let inside. Prep Hair requires both staff and customers to wear masks at all times, and all equipment is sanitized before and after appointments.

“It just gives an extra sense of security … for both the client and staff,” Marinelli said.

Legal versus morale questions

That sense of security is one of many layers employers will have to navigate as they begin to open again, says employment lawyer Hena Singh.

Employers have an obligation, she said, to accommodate employees’ concerns about workplace safety if, for example, the employee or someone they live with is immunocompromised.

“But then there’s the person who’s just generally fearful of being out in public in this circumstance and … would just prefer to work from home,” said Singh, a partner at Singh Lamarche LLP in Toronto — particularly for people in office jobs who have shifted to working remotely over the last few months.

“At that point, it’s not a legal question. It’s the morale question.”

Back in Saskatoon, MacDonald says he needs to get back to work soon because while he’s currently receiving the Canada Emergency Response Benefit, it’s not enough to cover all his expenses.

Customers have their nails manicured through acrylic safety panels by an esthetician at Stanley’s Nail Salon in Burnaby, B.C., on May 19. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

But he has to carefully consider the personal trade-offs that come with it as the pandemic continues.

“I’ve got a sister that isn’t well right now, and I won’t be able to see her once I start working,” he said.

Written by Jonathan Ore with files from Steve Howard and Kirthana Sasitharan.

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