Washington hair stylists proved independent contractors can’t be cut

(This post originally appeared on The Guardian)

One thing is obvious to anyone who’s ever visited a hair stylist: this is an industry that relies on independent contractors, many of whom rent out space from existing salons to work their craft.

Which is why, according to the News Tribune, more than 77,000 Washington state residents signed a petition and 1,000 local hair stylists descended upon Olympia last week to protest against a proposed state senate bill which – if passed – would have significantly affected their livelihoods.

In Washington state, salon owners who use independent contractors instead of employees in their shops enjoy an exemption (up to a certain amount) from paying certain business and occupancy taxes, as well as worker’s compensation and unemployment insurance. That means lost revenues to the state. Which is what prompted the creation of three bills – two in the state senate and one in the house – all with the objective of “leveling the playing field”.

The more onerous one – SB 5326 – was introduced by the Democratic state senator Karen Keiser and would have forbidden hair salons from renting out space to independent hair stylists, thereby requiring those stylists to work as employees which in turn would have forced their employers to pay a higher tax.

Salon owners balked.

“A dozen beauty professionals lease space at my salon,” owner and stylist Julee Broberg wrote in an op-ed. “They don’t work for me; they work for themselves. They have their own keys, set their own hours and prices, dress how they like and buy their own supplies.” Broberg, like most salon owners who use independent contractors, requires her stylists to have the right license and follow state rules. For her and her stylists, the relationship is a good one. “They could easily find work as employees, but prefer the greater earning potential and flexibility of being their own boss – often because they want time to care for their children,” she wrote.

Last week, more than a thousand of these small business owners protested against SB 5326 in a vocal public hearing … and they succeeded. Keiser decided to pull the bill, admitting that after hearing from “hundreds of hairdressers” about the bill’s threat to their livelihood she thought better of it. “This entire process was an example of how democracy works best,” she wrote in a press release.

There are still two bills concerning employee-contractor classifications that remain open for discussion in both the state’s house and senate. But yes, the process did work. And it’s encouraging,

Some businesses – like hair salons – that rely on the independent contractor model would have difficulty operating any other way. What’s even more important to note is that – depending on the industry and the nature of the relationships – the model is oftentimes preferred by both the business owner and the independent contractor. It offers independence, flexibility and control of the work to each party as long as they agree on a reasonable arrangement.

I hope that business owners around the country who are facing the same challenges as to how they classify their contractors and employees are encouraged by the success of the salon owners in Washington state. They organized, protested and educated their local legislators. Sometimes, in an effort to “level the playing field” the best interests of both the business owner and their independent contractors can be overlooked. There will no doubt be plenty of these fights still to come.

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