Hairstylists and salon owners around the state got Washington legislators’ attention this session when they turned out in massive numbers to oppose measures that targeted booth rentals, as well as independent contracting.
In the Washington state Senate and House, Democratic lawmakers introduced bills to change and tighten the definition of an independent contractor in state law.
Hairstylists and salon owners, who often work as independent contractors or own salons that independent contractors work in, were concerned about how such measures could affect their business models.
Tina Taylor of Kennewick, who has worked as a hairstylist for 18 years, said the experience has taught her to pay better attention to what’s happening in the state Legislature. She contracts a booth at Haven Hair Studio & Spa in Kennewick where she pays rent for her booth space, her own business license, liability and health insurance and her own taxes.
“They’re trying to make it harder for people to make a living as a small business for some reason, but some of us love being a businesswoman and doing these things," Taylor said.
Two Moses Lake-based stylists and salon owners Heather Kerekffy and Jenny Treutle spoke with House lawmakers during a Jan. 28 public hearing on House Bill 1515.
Both raised concerns about the part of the bill that would require an independent contractor’s services be “outside the usual course of business for which the service is performed,” which could present problems for salons that hire stylists as independent contractors, potentially.
Kerekffy told lawmakers she does not make money off the stylists she hires to work in her salon. She told lawmakers in January that if the definition of an independent contractor changed, “I (would) have to either close my salon or put those ladies out on the street,” she said in a public hearing.
“That is not fair, and I think whoever brings these bills forward and is sponsoring these bills needs to (look) at the bigger picture. I live in a small community. I do not have the resources or the means to go work for another huge corporation or company,” she said.
Treutle pointed to a much-needed truth in the debate over employment classification this year at the Legislature.
“We simply need clarification on this,” she told House members in January.
Ultimately, the strong turnout from salon owners on several measures around booth rentals and employee classification killed all measures except House Bill 1515, which changed drastically from when Rep. Marcus Riccelli, D-Spokane, first introduced it. Initially designed to change the definition or test for what makes an independent contractor truly independent, Riccelli amended the measure to create a working group to study the issue instead of changing the definition.
“I heard loud and clear that the bill that was introduced was not workable, and I think that’s what’s great about the process,” he said. “I think we need more investigation and more dialogue around this issue, which is where we pivoted to this other language.”
The bill had to clear the Rules Committee to the House floor by March 13 to continue through the legislative process this year. Results from this committee meeting weren’t available at press time.
Regardless of what happens to the bill, Taylor said she plans to keep watch on what’s happening at the state level.
“It’s great our voices are heard and people are paying attention but we need to stay vigilant,” she said. “I don’t read proposed legislation every day. They tried to slip it in so quietly and make it intimidating to read so you don’t even know what it means. I’ve heard a lot of people say they want to keep pushing this in some way, shape or form and to do this to small businesses — they are just creating havoc. I don’t know what the point is.”
To keep the conversation going, Taylor’s husband, Sean Taylor, designed a T-shirt for hairstylists featuring the word “unity” spelled out with hairdressers’ tools on the front and this phrase on the back: “Hope always involves rights. Standing together yields lasting, impactful strong team support.” The first letter in each of the words spells out, “hairstylists.”
Sean owns his own small business, Art by Sean Taylor, which offers custom art design work.
Mutant Printing & Promotions of Kennewick printed the shirts. Tina said 65 people pre-ordered one and she hopes more stylists across the state buy one so they can serve as “walking billboards” about the independent contractor issues.
Advocates who favor the legislation, including the Washington State Labor Council, say the legislation will not affect stylists or many other sectors. Lawyers who spoke during the public hearing on House Bill 1515 in January said that independent contractors currently under state law are not protected by worker’s compensation, therefore having to spend their own money or at times the state’s money (through Medicaid) if they are injured on the job.
Riccelli said that House Bill 1515 would have leveled the playing field for businesses that are currently misclassifying their employees with those that are not.
“I absolutely think that there are some issues where it’s unclear. I also think there are some areas where people are knowingly not following the laws (by) treating folks as independent contractors, when they should be treated as employees, therefore not paying them benefits, and for me it’s all about an issue of control,” Riccelli said. “So, if you’re telling someone where to be, when to be there, what to wear potentially, maybe what products to use, then they don’t have control of their own schedule.”
Riccelli said particularly in construction and custodial industries this practice can be seen, if construction contractors are consistently told where to be and when to be there or when custodial workers are told they must buy certain cleaning products to do their work.
On the other hand, business organizations are concerned about how changing the independent contractor “test” in state law will impact small businesses in the state. Bob Battles, the government affairs director at the Association of Washington Business, spoke against the bill in January, saying it would all but eliminate independent contracting in the state.
“It destroys the process, and while it may be an ‘ABC’ test, it’s so onerous, the results are (that) very few are going to do it,” he said in the public hearing on House Bill 1515.
Ultimately, AWB believes that if measures like House Bill 1515 become law, the tax burden shifts will hurt entrepreneurship and small businesses in the state.
“Passing such laws would mean higher taxes and business costs for employers, less flexibility for independent contractors, fewer options for people who want to work for themselves and possibly fewer jobs overall since many employers could not afford to hire contractors as new employees,” Kris Johnson, president of AWB, wrote in his monthly column.
As stylists like Kerekffy and Treutle pointed out in January, depending on how the definition of independent contractor changes, their salons (and their livelihoods) could be at risk for closure.
Ultimately, there are a lot of unknowns about independent contracting in the state. Last year, the state Legislature passed Senate Bill 6032, commissioning a study of independent contracting through the state’s Department of Commerce. That study includes surveys, which will begin this month, and the study should be completed by June. Ideally, this study will help answer some of the fundamental questions about how independent contracting operates in the state — but it will not suggest policies.
When advocates and lawmakers were asked about how many independent contractors the proposed bills would impact, no numbers were given — largely because they are not readily known. Much like it was not clear during public hearings and debate who exactly will be affected or carved out of such a law, Washington is working to learn currently what the state of independent contracting is right now.
Sen. Rebecca Saldaña, D-Seattle, who introduced matching legislation to Riccelli’s bill on the Senate side this year, said the issue for her is far from moot for the coming years. Saldaña said that for her, “worker classification” means thinking of workers who historically have not been in positions of political power, including women and immigrants or newer Americans.
“I do believe our laws in Washington state favor larger businesses, favor businesses where there is more historically work done by men or industries that are done by men, so that is something that as a legislator I will continue to dig in on,” she said.
Riccelli said with the changing economy, and more American workers piecemealing together wages, who is and who is not an independent contractor will continue to be an important issue for lawmakers to address.
“We have more and more people who are doing multiple jobs, and that’s great, we want that and need to have room for that. We just want to make sure that those who are truly being treated as employees are receiving the benefits and that the companies are doing the right thing, and we’re not creating an unlevel playing field for our workers or our businesses,” he said.
If House Bill 1515 becomes law, it will create a working group composed of two senators, two representatives and five members appointed by the state Labor Council (which supports the legislation) and the Association of Washington Businesses (which does not). Riccelli said he expects the two groups to pick stakeholders from different industries as representatives on the task force, if it comes to fruition.
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