Olympia has never seen so much good hair.
Olympia has never seen so much good hair. Susie Powers

Hair stylists from all over Washington, some whose shops are pressed right up against the Idaho-Spokane border, journeyed to Olympia today to voice their concerns over a controversial Senate bill that could threaten their livelihoods.

Last week, SB 5326 gained rabid attention because it would ban booth rentals—the independent contractor style business model that the cosmetology business thrives on. There was outrage and a petition with over 350,000 signatures. Senator Karen Keiser, the sponsor of the bill, reneged on its hardest hitting features. Booth rentals would not be forbidden, barbers—who were perplexingly not included in the original bill—would no longer be exempt.

The issue of a so-called "level playing field" remained.

Today was the public hearing for the bill and 1,000 people, most of them hairdressers, showed up. About 91 one of them signed up to say their piece. The vast majority were against the bill.

"I definitely think they realized that there’s a huge group of us that are not for this," Susie Powers, a hairdresser in Seattle told The Stranger, "that the majority of people are not for this. They think we don’t understand this at all."

The bill, and where it stands, is confusing. Originally, it was created because the booth rental business model and the commission-based employee salon models were at odds, according to the salon owners who reached out to Keiser and prompted the bill's creation. But, most of the original text was done away with. The whole "level playing field" thing remains.

"The bill before us brings us the question of tax fairness," Keiser said at the beginning of the meeting, "whether two individuals doing the same work are getting the same treatment."

It was based on similar legislation passed in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. And a salon owner from Spokane's individual testimony. That woman, however, didn't show up to testify today because she had allegedly received threats.

"If the intent of this bill is to level the playing field it may mean my family doesn’t eat or have a home to live in," Jenny Trudle, a Washington stylist, testified. "I feel you have targeted us as an industry, a predominately female industry. If your goal is to create more revenue then say so."

"I do want to assure you that this isn’t aimed at putting you out of business," Keiser offered.

The remainder of the bill will mandate that booth-renters pay extra taxes. But, which ones?

"Everything changed up until five minutes before we started that meeting," Hewitt told The Stranger. She and Powers were in the car together on their way back from Olympia. They both said they were handed papers by Legislative staff when they entered the hearing that had other tax requirements like a business & occupation tax listed on it. But, during the hearing, Keiser said all of that was removed from the bill.

"What they didn’t address was how they want us, as small business owners, to pay unemployment benefits when the only ones who have control over whether we are fired or laid off are ourselves," Powers said. The only way we’d be able to collect that is if we run out of business. That one is really difficult for everyone to understand and swallow."

There were a lot of tears during the hearing. Emotions were high and time was short. Only a few people out of the 91 who signed up were able to speak.

"The legislators cut off all the people against the bill pretty quickly but let the four or five people for it speak on and on," Hewitt said. "It was pretty heartbreaking."

The people in support of the bill were mostly commission-based salon owners. They raised concerns about booth-renting establishments misclassifying employees as booth-renters and shirking responsibilities in order to avoid paying additional fees that employers have to pay.

"Every legislator we’ve talked to said they haven’t seen an opposition to a bill like that," Hewitt said. "Still, I don't feel optimistic."

Neither did Powers. Both were invigorated by the support in their industry but heartbroken by the reality of the Legislative process.

"My feeling going away was we were definitely there, they definitely saw us," Powers said. "The thing that left a bad taste in my mouth was what [Keiser] was saying the other day about how they bring this bill out as legislation and then they dive in and start to understand it."

"How did this even come about where you had so little information?" Powers continued. "Is this really how they do it? We deserve better than that."