Sunday, March 3, 2024

‘Non-essential’ Part I: Covid-19 hit them early, but help lagged behind [Free read]

Aida Maldonado in her salon, Power of Beauty in Wilmington, which has been closed for four weeks due to the coronavirus under government orders. (Port City Daily photo/Johanna F. Still)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — Being four weeks out of work has taken away Aida Maldonado’s sense of peace — a feeling she worked her whole life to achieve.

Like may other professionals rendered “non-essential” through a state order to slow the spread of the coronavirus, Maldonado has a skill set that’s deeper than trimming split ends. Most days, her swiveling stylist’s seat doubles as a therapy chair.

Sometimes, clients just need to talk. Or if a client has a certain twitch, bruise, or something just feels off, she knows to look out for signs of domestic violence. She calls the salon a “women’s ministry.”

“I’m here to service whoever is in my chair,” Maldonado said. “This is my calling, working with women one-on-one. It’s almost like this is my sanctuary and this is their sanctuary.”

Little to no income

Maldonado isn’t complaining, just sharing her experience — but it’s worth noting that she’s part of a significant population of workers who, though put out of work by government restrictions, were among the last to receive government aid.

As other businesses are able to squeak by, pivoting to “essential” services, tattoo artists, hairstylists, manicurists, and other people whose jobs require close physical contact with others, singled out by Executive Order 120, have little to no means of earning revenue during this lag time.

Among the first people financially hit by government closures, they tend to fall within one of the last groups covered by public assistance. Unemployment claims for independent contractors, which make up a majority of employees in these professions, opened up for the first time Friday. It remains to be seen if recent upgrades to the state’s Division of Employment Security will help these workers avoid the weeks-long delays experienced by others following the closing of bars and restaurants.

Personal care service small business owners are scraping by, many unable to secure coveted forgivable loans to cover their handful of employees. With federal stimulus checks still lagging, many of these small business owners and employees have been unemployed with no income for four weeks — at no fault of their own — with little relief.

To be clear, these professionals are not advocating for an unsafe reopening of their businesses. But in the absence of work, they have had the opportunity to reflect on how “non-essential” functions often can and do serve a vital, even essential role in their client’s lives.

Author’s note: This is part one of a two-part series. Stay tuned for part two, which will feature an esthetician, tattoo artist, piercer, and hairstylist.

Pink is a place

Maldonado was raised in public housing in a rough area of New Jersey. Starting at nine years old, she practiced doing hair on baby dolls before moving on to family members. If she could master a certain style in her head, she could pull it off in real life. She escaped anger and loneliness there, too.

“I learned how to mentally take yourself to a pretty place. It gave me peace.” Now, the walls of her salon off Cardinal Drive, The Power of Beauty, are painted Grease pink. “Pink is not just a color. It’s a place,” she said.

With $500 to her name, she opened the salon three years ago, fulfilling a lifelong dream. “This means so much to me,” she said. After the closure order, she went from servicing 20-25 clients a week to zero.

“Me being a business owner, me making it, me fulfilling a dream, that’s everything. When that door opened for me, it wasn’t just, ‘Oh I have a salon.’ I felt like the door opened for me. It was my opportunity to give back what I felt I never had.” 

Related: Through the window: Parents juggle homeschooling, full-time jobs, and feeding the family [Free read]

Knowing her stylists are also out of work hurts, she said. She waived their booth rent ahead of the closure but still feels a weight, knowing they have no income. “I wish that I could have done more,” she said.

Last week, she said she nearly reached a breaking point. A bill came in. She spent more than five hours on hold with the North Carolina Division of Employment Security (DES) with no help or answers. Her husband, a grocery store employee working during the crisis, had to reach into his 401K.

She sent an email, and finally, someone from DES called her back. “She told me not to give up,” Maldonado said of the woman who called. Though the woman couldn’t help direct her to funding because she was not eligible to receive unemployment, Maldonado took it as a sign.

“I never want to be caught like this again. It made me feel like as a businesswoman, what is it that you need to do? What is it that you need to learn? I want to be prepared next time,” she said.

Great timing, bad timing

Dynh Le walks through his new business venture, GDN Man Cave on Racine Drive, a new business he was set to open before the state closure due to coronavirus. (Port City Daily photo/Johanna F. Still)
Dynh Le walks through his new business venture, GDN Man Cave on Racine Drive, a new business he was set to open before the state closure due to coronavirus. (Port City Daily photo/Johanna F. Still)

GDN Nail Bar owner Dynh Le grew up in his parent’s nail salon. Now an owner of two (soon to be three) salons of his own, the service is about the experience, not just the end result.

“We build this relationship to where I don’t just do your nails. I know you. I know how your nails are. Your nails aren’t like her nails. Her nails aren’t like your nails,” he said. “Too oily, too rigid, peely, chipping nails, soft nails, weak nails, hard nails, brittle nails, man I can go on.”

Le points out that painted nails can boost confidence and pedicures can help save men and women from painful and expensive medical procedures.

“Sure, people might go, ‘Nails are a luxury. You don’t need it done, you just want it done,'” Le said. “But at the end of the day, a lot of people need it done. Some people can’t do it for themselves. That’s why people have us.”

To help his 12 nail artists get by, he applied for a Paycheck Personal Protection loan, on time. Last Thursday, the program quickly ran out of money. “I was way in the back of the list I guess,” he said.

Before the closure, Le was two weeks away from opening a new business in the space connected to his salon off Racine Drive. An extension of his “Guys Do Nails” salon, the GDN Man Cave will be a nail salon and barbershop geared toward men.

GDN Nail Bar owner Dynh Le looks through his new TikTok account he created just one month ago. His account has since amassed more than 32,000 followers after a video he filmed at his downtown salon Wilmington went viral. (Port City Daily photo/Johanna F. Still)

“I want this to be a place where guys can come in here, have a beer, and just relax,” he said.

He spent $50,000 getting the space just right, renovating the interior and adding features that will help men feel more comfortable. “It was great timing actually in my eyes, but the coronavirus was bad timing,” Le said of his move to expand.

A partition wall will shield men from the lobby and a tire outfitted as a sink will be used for pedicures. Paying rent at the shop this month is not a possibility, Le said. “I had money saved but I just dumped it in this,” he said.

Le created a TikTok account on March 23, the same day Governor Roy Cooper ordered all salons, spas, barbershops, and personal care services closed. The day after the statewide stay-at-home order, Le posted a video from his downtown Wilmington salon that has since been viewed 6.1 million times.

Featuring a woman getting her nails done through the mail slot from the closed storefront, the video later attracted the attention of police, Le said, but he was cleared because the post was made as a joke. With both of his salons closed, Le continues posting TikTok videos to his 32,300 new followers. He redid his backyard with money he said he doesn’t have to keep his hands busy. Most importantly, he’s spending more time with his wife and two young children.

Navigating unemployment and loans is an unknown for Le. “But what I do know is, I taught my son how to ride a bike. I‘ve learned a lot about my daughter, she’s two. They’ve gotten to know me a little better too,” he said.

“I don’t take that for granted. But what it did do for me is realize how much harder I have to work after all of this so I can have those moments sooner than later. I can retire earlier and have those moments again. It gave me a taste of what I want eventually,” he said.

‘People trust us with everything’

Jasmine Kay pictured in Freedom Salon, a small hair salon located off Carolina Beach Road in Wilmington. (Port City Daily photo/Johanna F. Still)
Jasmine Kay pictured in Freedom Salon, a small hair salon located off Carolina Beach Road in Wilmington. (Port City Daily photo/Johanna F. Still)

Hairstylists like Jasmine Kay are used to growing with their clients (and their hair). “I see people every four, six weeks. It’s the connection we have with each other, too,” she said. “‘Hey, how’s your husband doing? I know he was going into surgery.’ It’s the emotional connection.”

“People trust us with everything. We’re here for people,” Kay said. “It’s more than, ‘not essential.’”

Whether it’s fixing roots or cleaning up a short-haired clients’ look, some of Kay’s clients are getting antsy in during the state shutdown. She’s gotten requests for home visits, which she won’t take. “A) It’s illegal. B) I don’t want to touch you and be around you during this time. I love you, but no,” Kay said.

Kay has mixed feelings about gift cards, a venue some businesses have encouraged while doors are closed. “You’re replacing not making money in one area to not making money in the next.”

So far, she has had no luck filing for unemployment. Her boyfriend, a bartender, is also out of work. But, at least her dog is happy, she said. “It’s not a vacation. You’re stuck at home. I guess I’ll go out for a two-hour walk with my dog,” she said.

To help tide clients over, she’s tried to secure root touch up spray, which is a scarcity nowadays. Her supply house is nearly sold out, and orders are delayed because of social distancing requirements at the warehouse. So, she’s caved on one of her principled beliefs to avoid drug store dyes.

“You know what, I never recommend box color. But if you do it during this time, I’m not going to judge you for it. If it’s messed up, I know how to fix it,” she said.

Hair is about professionalism and self-esteem, she said. “It helps you feel better, it helps you look better. It helps you be more professional if you’re in a professional setting,” Kay said. “Your look is you. And people see you every single day.”

With some funds saved to get by, Kay said she’ll be O.K. during the closure and is more worried about colleagues in her industry getting by. “A lot of stylists and other independent contractors don’t have a lot of money set aside for something like this.”

Send tips and comments to Johanna Ferebee Still at

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