Workers Are Changing Jobs More Than Ever, But Here’s Why Your Hairstylist Might Be Stuck


Non-competition contracts have become an expectation in the hair industry.


  • Herring An-Li/WESA

Finding the right hairstylist often kicks off a years-long relationship. There’s trust involved – no one wants a bad haircut – and it’s common for stylists to get to know the personal details of their clients’ lives.

So if the stylists move, the clients follow.

Heather Johnson had this experience when she opened Alchemy Dry Cut Lounge in Lawrenceville in 2018. She estimates that 90% of her customers (including 90.5 An-Li Herring of WESA) left her previous job at the MCN Salon in Shadyside .

“I was really, really blown away by how many customers followed me. … It was almost everyone,” Johnson recalled.

Today, Alchemy employs a dozen people, and Johnson plans to fill more chairs in its Butler Street storefront.

Herring An-Li / 90.5 WESA

Alchemy Dry Cut Lounge has expanded to the second floor of its Lawrenceville storefront since opening in 2018.

But while the show could have a bright future, it had a rocky start. Johnson was fired after MCN discovered she was working in her new accommodation.

“I knew they would eventually sue me,” she said, as she had signed a non-compete contract at MCN.

Such agreements aim to prevent workers from joining or creating rival companies. Although historically associated with high-tech and executive-level jobs where employees have access to trade secrets, they have become increasingly prevalent in service professions. Examples include sandwich makers, yoga teachers, dog sitters and personal aids.

Johnson’s contract with MCN prohibited him from doing business within seven miles of his former living room for a year after his departure. But she only went two miles.

She said it was impractical to move further.

“Seven air miles outside of Pittsburgh is huge. … And by this point in my career, I had spent my whole life building my book and my clientele,” she said. “So , it was not possible for me to go to the suburbs and start my life again.

MCN declined to comment on the lawsuit, but eventually dropped the case.

Protect investments in employees

Non-competitions have become an expectation in the hair industry, said Nicole Lovato, educational coordinator at the South and North Hills Beauty Academies. A 2015 survey found that about a third of salon owners say they require employees to sign non-compete clauses, and Lovato said she knows dozens of stylists who have been sued and lost for violating agreements.

She said they are a major topic of conversation when recruiters visit.

“The first hands that go up from the students are, ‘Are you getting us to sign a contract?’ … It’s a very big fear,” she said.

Herring An-Li / 90.5 WESA

Nicole Lovato taught at the South and North Hills Beauty Academies for two decades. She said that during this period, non-compete agreements had become more common in the hair industry.

With big chains, the answer is almost always “yes,” she said, and she noted that independent establishments often use non-competition as well. She said they’re quick to give students a reason why: salons invest heavily in employee training.

“They’re going to bring in educators,” Lovato said. “And I can tell you working in a school, it’s not a cheap feat. You pay for these educators to come. You pay for their room. You pay for the board. … So you invest thousands of dollars in these employees, so I can see both sides of the coin. I really can.

Lawyer Shawn Flaherty represented Whitehouse Salon in Shadyside in a non-competition dispute which was settled last summer. He said the contract was justified because it protected the owners’ legitimate business interests, such as a well-trained workforce and confidential information.

“I think if they didn’t have it, it would hurt their ability to invest. [in those assets]. I think they would be less inclined to do that,” Flaherty said. “Or I think they would be less inclined to hire a lot of people too.”

Michelle Leonard, director of the Pittsburgh Multicultural Cosmetology Academy, also noted that when stylists leave a salon, they tend to leave as a group to start their own businesses together. She said that possibility poses an existential threat to employers.

“[Salon staff] can invent any reason to raise their own money, move across the street, move next door, etc. And now you’ve ruined that other person’s business because they didn’t have [a] Contract [with employees]“, Leonardo said.

Right to earn a living

While Pennsylvania employers can use non-competition as a condition of employment and other benefits, it is illegal to restrict workers for excessive distances or periods of time.

“A non-competition obviously limits someone’s ability to earn a living. And for that reason the courts will construe them very narrowly in favor of the employee,” local attorney Joseph Hudock said.

“That does not mean that the employee always wins,” he added, “but to the extent that there is ambiguity [in the contract]it will be interpreted against… the employer.

Pittsburgh labor attorney Christine Elzer said companies also have a harder time fighting back when suing someone who works in a licensed profession such as hairdressing. “That’s what [the employees are] trained to do. And if you exclude them from the market, it will interfere with their right to earn a living,” she said. “And generally, the lower an employee’s salary, the more argument they will have that they will have a hard time earning a living.”

But regardless of the legal merits, Elzer said, workers generally agree not to compete.

“They feel pressured to sign it or lose their jobs,” she said. “And then, even if the non-competition isn’t valid, they’re afraid to do anything that might violate it, knowing that even if they were to win, it’s going to cost them tens of thousands of dollars to to defend oneself.” [themselves]. And low-wage workers just don’t have that kind of money.

Given these concerns, several States not to impose non-competition, and 10 Ban Them For Eligible Workers Who Earn Below A Certain Income Threshold. President Biden, meanwhile, ordered the Federal Trade Commission to explore options to limit their use nationwide because the White House says a less competitive job market hurts workers.

Heather Johnson said 90% of her clients have followed her from her old salon when she opened Alchemy Dry Cut Lounge in 2018. She now employs a dozen people.

“It removes wages. This limits growth opportunities for employees and restricts their travel,” said Andrele Brutus St. Val, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh. She said these effects are particularly apparent in today’s tight labor market, which has caused many workers to quit their jobs in search of higher pay.

Meanwhile, a 2021 study found that when Oregon restricted the use of non-competition clauses in 2008, wages for hourly workers increased by 2% to 3% on average. The effects were larger in occupations where non-competition is more common.

St. Val said the deals also hurt consumers, in part because less competition translates into higher prices. And in the hairstyling industry, she added, customers are often attached to the stylist, not the salon.

“You go to your stylist because she’s good and got to know you. She knows your hair. She knows your style. The employer wouldn’t know,” St. Val said.

“People come and form a relationship with you, [the hairdresser]and you’re the one with the skills,” agreed Kelley D’Atri, owner of the Mint Salon and Gallery in Shadyside.

Like Johnson, she was sued by her former employer, Puccini Hair Design in Oakland, when she decided to strike out on her own. The case ended up fizzling out. But D’Atri said that remains one of the reasons she will never use non-competition with her staff.

“If you have to leave, do it with respect,” she said. “I have no problem telling every customer where you’ve been because they’re your customer.”

Johnson said she also doesn’t use non-competitions. But they still harass her.

“It’s really difficult to hire hairdressers because a lot of them [have signed] non-compete,” she said. “They will stay [at the same salon] year after year and being miserable and too scared to accept non-competition. so i guess [the contracts] work, right? »

But to her, she says, they are just a cost of doing business in an industry where they are now common.


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