A Cosmetologist in Elko Rebounds in the Era of COVID-19

Alina Croft reports on Northern Nevada’s cosmetology industry which took a huge hit at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, leaving cosmetologists, hair stylists, nail technicians, lash artists, and others out of work for weeks on end without eligibility to claim unemployment.

Cosmetologist Jennifer Woolington recently doing a cut and style on a long-time client in Elko, Nevada, after she was able to return to work following Governor Sisolak’s shutdown of salons in March 2020. Photo provided by Jennifer Woolington with permission to use.

The Initial Stages of the Struggle

When the global pandemic struck, many businesses closed their doors either due to lack of finances or safety concerns, but others such as salons, were shut indefinitely due to a directive by Nevada Governor Steve Sisolak in March. Jennifer Woolington, a cosmetologist of 26 years, was unable to work for about nine weeks, causing immense financial strain. She says she had to live on just necessities and cut out any extras, such as a clothing subscription and a home cleaning box delivery service.

“Financially, it was very hard. I think it was about nine weeks that I was out of work with no other option for income. Also, at the time they weren’t allowing people classified as ‘self-employed’ to file for unemployment and as a cosmetologist I fell into that category,” said Woolington.

New Image Salons Logo, where Woolington rents space. Photo provided by Jennifer Woolington.

How does it work to be a ‘self-employed’ cosmetologist working in a salon?

Many salons operate on a renting system. Cosmetologists will rent space from the salon owners much like someone renting a home from a landlord, but are considered their own business owners. Cosmetologists like Woolington do not receive a paycheck and only get ‘paid’ when they perform a service for their client. Woolington rents space at New Image Salon in Elko, in northeastern Nevada.

“The owner of my salon gave me, and the other women who rent space from her, a break from our rent,” she said. “She could have charged us full rent the entire time we were unable to work to cover her building costs, but she found a way so that we wouldn’t have to pay rent on our spaces. That was really helpful. I was lucky because some of the places that I pay bills to deferred my payments because of the pandemic and my lack of income, but there of course were places that didn’t.”

Because of the way cosmetology licensing works, Woolington was unable to work in any capacity. She stayed active on Instagram, where she has both a professional and personal presence.

“As a cosmetologist, I am not allowed to work anywhere but in my salon, [Governor] Sisolak’s directive and the Nevada Board of Cosmetology especially reiterated that we couldn’t do hair or any other services at home or other places,” said Woolington. “If I had gone to people’s houses or had them come to my home, I could have lost my license for up to 10 years and/or been fined quite a bit of money. That would have been devastating to me because I don’t have any other trades, I’ve been working in this industry for 26 years.”

Woolington wearing her mask, ready to work on her first day returning to work in mid-May. Photo provided by Jennifer Woolington

Mental Impacts of Covid-19 and Continuing Financial Strains

Along with the financial strain Woolington suffered, she also was impacted mentally.

“It affected me mentally because it was hard to be home that whole time and be alone,” she said. “I’m really close to a lot of my clients and I was unable to see them for the entire time. I’m lucky I am so close to my clients though because many of them knew me well enough to know that I didn’t have another source of income. They would buy gift certificates to be used later once the salon was open again or they would just Venmo me as much as their service would be just because they knew I was struggling.”

Even now with salons open, Woolington is still feeling a physical and mental strain.

“Some clients who would normally come to me every four to six weeks realized they could go nine weeks without coming to me. I lost some clients who began to box dye their own hair at home and some have been trimming their own hair as well. Even being back, I am still missing income I normally would have had prior to the pandemic,” she said.

Once salons were allowed to reopen, there were many extra sanitary precautions put into place to help stop the spread of COVID-19. This was a big change from the usual perception of a salon day, pictured as a time to be pampered, relax, and gossip with your stylist.

“Despite some setbacks and changes, it has been really good to be back to work. I’m glad I get to see my clients again and do what I love,” said Woolington. “Now the state board mandates that I have to wear a mask and my client wears a mask. I also choose to wipe everything down with bleach wipes between each client and we’re required to have six feet between each work station in the salon. Otherwise, our state board continues to enforce strict measures of cleanliness that were already in place before all of this.”

Reporting by Alina Croft for the Reynolds Sandbox



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Showcasing innovative and engaging multimedia storytelling by students with the Reynolds Media Lab in Reno.