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.


15 Comments / Post A Comment

City_Dater (#565)

Made an appointment at the salon downtown as soon as I was sure they were back up and running again! My stylist answered the phone and she sounded very happy to be working again indeed.

Kate (#1,408)

Did the woman actually make you confirm that you were a citizen? Being a citizen and having the right to work are two different things, so I hope not! (If you’re a permanent resident, you can work, pay taxes and have a SSN. If you’re a citizen, you can do all of the above plus vote.)

julebsorry (#1,572)

Jesus. Eat out, tip double, now also go to the salon and tip extra there, too? Seriously, I’m on a hardcore budget and am only giving myself $70 to live on till the next payday. And I have a solid, middle-class job in NYC that wasn’t affected by the hurricane.

Wasn’t this originally a budgeting-focused blog? What demographic is this playing to, exactly? I feel kinda left cold, considering that being on a budget is already really difficult for me and requires a lot of self-control…

Mike Dang (#2)

@julebsorry As always, you just have to figure out what makes sense for you. As I mentioned in that post, Anthony Bourdain suggests sending a $20 bill back to the dishwasher, but my budget allows me to send back a $10 bill. If your budget doesn’t allow you to send back anything, that’s fine too! These are simply suggestions for helping out in small ways while our city recovers and rebuilds from a devastating storm. You should, of course, take care of yourself before you reach out to take care of others. You know, like the flight attendants tell us to do on airplanes.

melis (#42)


melis (#42)


lizard (#2,615)

@melis this is a bit rude to the original commenter. i made an account after a lot of lurking to comment on this article. I agree that all of this extra tipping is a bit annoying. we all suffered from the hurricane. i dont feel the need to even out the wealth asap just because

cherrispryte (#19)

@lizard You seem to have been cut off in mid-sentence there, so let’s do a mad-lib and fill in your blank!

Here’s my suggestion: “i dont feel the need to even out the wealth asap just because i am ignorant of the different struggles other people go through, and even though it is in times of crisis when people come together to help out the least fortunate and hardest hit, i am going to think only of myself.”

That’s what you were trying to say before you got cut off, right?

lizard (#2,615)

@cherrispryte exactly! what a mind reader! i meant it as “just because” sorry if i dont feel the need to re-distribute my wealth

julebsorry (#1,572)

Wow, guys. I guess my point wasn’t thoughtfully stated, but the accusation that I’m “ignorant of the different struggles other people go through, and even though it is in times of crisis when people come together to help out the least fortunate and hardest hit, i am going to think only of myself” is er…a pretty low blow from commenters I actually respect a lot.

Obvs Mike isn’t frog-marching us into NYC’s delis and hairdressers to forcibly empty our wallets while drinking our delicious tears of privileged guilt. Ok? I just felt kind of bad because I’m a compulsive spender who is actually really over-generous by nature, and that behavior has gotten me into a LOT of financial trouble, not that you could know that. It just sorta sucked that the advice in these posts is exactly the behavior I’m having to work to curb, and this blog has actually had some amazing advice to help me get on a budget. I still think we can be friends here, I swear…

cherrispryte (#19)

@julebsorry For starters, respecting me a lot is always a mistake – I’m guaranteed to disappoint eventually.

To open up a bit, I’m in a weird position, because my entire family and an awful lot of friends were affected by this storm, and as I am several hundred miles away and unable to give direct support like this, I’ve been feeling incredibly frustrated and useless that I am unable to help the city (and Long Island! and also I suppose New Jersey) recover. I’ve bought a few things off of the hurricane relief amazon wishlists, but still – I’d love to be able to kick some money towards someone whose life has been made quantifiably harder because of the storm. So maybe I was a little heavy handed in my language (see above, re: don’t respect me.)

But also, I wasn’t responding to you as much as to @lizard’s “a bit annoying” and “redistribution of wealth” comments. Your criticism – dammit, I’m trying to save money, not spend it, that’s why I visit this site! – is far more valid than the idea that throwing a busboy ten bucks is wealth redistribution. And “we all suffered in the hurricane” completely ignores reality. My parents’ electricity STILL isn’t back on, yet my father’s the first to say that what they’re going through is nothing compared to how other people lost absolutely everything, and, you know, died.

This is ridiculous. I am a generous tipper, but I am not doubling my tips to make up for anything. Disasters negatively impact everyone, I lost wages even though I do not work in service. Even if you did not lose wages, you lost business, your bonus was effected, or maybe your costs increased. It’s not like the hurricane helped some of us and hurt others and now we need to make it right, it hurt us all and we need to come together. This is done by supporting FEMA, by going down to Coney Island to cleanup, by offering a place for someone who is displaced to stay, not by taking yourself out to dinner and sliding an extra 20$ to the busboy.

ghechr (#596)

My take away from the article is not that we ought to tip more out of guilt but it was rather a perspective of someone who has been affected by Sandy and what sorts of safety nets are available/lacking. I was surprised to discover that the salon takes such a large % of a hairdresser’s commission and I was also surprised that she doubles her income via tips. As someone who does not live in NYC or any of the other cities harmed by Sandy, I hope everyone’s up on their feet again soon!

Not all hair salons work the same, my mother has owned several salons, and worked in many others. Some salons charge ‘booth rent’, which says that they pay a fixed amount to the owner each week, regardless of how much they make themselves. Some salons pay a straight hourly wage and require a certain amount of volume to be done (think supercuts). And then there are the salons that take a percentage of the hairdresser’s take. Take it from me, salon owners are not sitting back and getting rich off the stylists, they are right there beside them, cutting hair trying to make ends meet.

sunflowernut (#1,638)

I think the thing that’s so off putting about the author’s statement about “the reigning dining mindset in New York City” is that it seems to categorize people based on assumptions with little fact behind it. It assumes that all service people are in need of charity while everyone else (or at least, readers of the Billfold) wasn’t affected by Sandy in any monetary way and have a lot of cash to spare. And as someone who has very little money to spare, I felt very embarrassed upon reading the author’s above statement knowing that since I wasn’t a part of this particular “dining mindset” group, I must be in a have-not sort of group. It’s just a rather classist and ignorant statement for her to make.

I’m not saying that it isn’t a great thing for people to tip extra if they can, I’m just saying that the way her statement was phrased, it came off as very out of touch.

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