Let me be the first to say that my job should not be open for business.
As a receptionist at a waxing salon, where women get Brazilians, leg waxes and eyebrow shaping, I am an unessential employee. To keep business from sinking, the owner has purposefully understaffed us, which means that when I or the waxers have symptoms, we’re not allowed to stay home.
I risk the health of myself, my roommates and everyone I come into contact with so that people can have smooth genitals. That’s not okay. It is, however, the reality that many unessential workers deal with in the face of both a global pandemic and leadership that values economic gain over public health.
When someone comes into the salon, I’m at the front desk to take their temperature. It always reads between 92 and 95, which makes me think that maybe it’s not accurate if every single person who comes in is hypothermic. I then ask patrons three mandatory questions: have you had any COVID-19 symptoms, positive tests or close contact with a confirmed or suspected case in the past 14 days?
At this point, they will either tell me no (with no way of knowing whether or not they’re telling the truth), or they will say something stupid, like the woman in a parka who’d just stomped snow off her boots and told me she tested negative in June. Sometimes people will say they just had a baby and their test at the hospital came back negative. Sometimes I’ll look down to see three children in tow, and, upon letting that person know the kids can’t wait in the building, be met with a tantrum from the adult. The worst is when someone tells me, “Oh, I don’t go anywhere,” only to have freshly applied acrylic nails, eyelash extensions and shopping bags from three different retail stores on their arms. This is the kind of public I have to face every week as an unessential worker during the pandemic.
After questioning, I lead the customer to their 4ft x 4ft room with a cot and examination table, after which a waxer will come in and get real close to the person, who usually wants a Brazilian wax.
Finally, the customer will come back to the front desk and either hand me money or check out with a card on the iPad. Sometimes, I have to click all the buttons on the iPad for them, because they feel very comfortable being touched by strangers but not comfortable touching a frequently disinfected surface. If they want to leave a cash tip, I hand them a small tip envelope with their waxer’s name on it. I have to say, out loud, to another adult, “Please don’t lick this.” A lot of times they won’t listen and will pull their mask down, lick the thing, hand it back to me and pull their mask back up, as if nothing in the world could be wrong with what they just did.
What complicates my feelings about the customers is that they are often the sweetest people I’ve ever met. They bring pastries and coffee for everyone in the building and tell me they like my eyelashes. A lot of them are also essential workers; it’s not unheard of for a teacher or nurse to stop by on her lunch break. Who am I to tell a nurse that she’s selfish for getting waxed?
Before the pandemic, I would’ve liked my job. It’s not physically grueling, I get to sit most of the time and, because of the nature of the industry, the customers are mainly women, so I don’t get sexually harassed. I recognize that I’m neither extremely lucky or extremely unlucky.
According to a December report from Spectrum News, personal care services, such as waxing, contribute to more coronavirus spread than gyms. It’s still less than retail, and is a miniscule percentage compared to the spread of household gatherings. This is in stark contrast to last spring, when unessential workers and people working from home were 84% of those hospitalized with COVID-19. The data is outdated and incomplete, but it’s clear that while my workplace isn’t safe, it also isn’t the driving force behind the spread.
The problem, as always, lies with the leadership. If I could choose one person’s face to gently shove into a muddy ditch with my boot, it would be Governor Andrew Cuomo. I’ve been waiting for Cuomo to shut New York down for months. I thought it would happen after Thanksgiving, Christmas or New Year's, when rates hit more than 3% (according to Gothamist), then 10% (according to Andrew Cuomo’s official website) in any given area. Each time we hit the target, however, the targets kept moving until I realized that the only way we’d shut down was if half the city was infected. It didn’t matter that new infection rates were almost double spring’s peak (19,400 new cases in a day in January compared to 12,200 last April, according to a New York Times report) as long as people kept purchasing.
And still, I will be the last person in the state of New York to receive a vaccination because I’m not essential.
I understand the economy is important and we don’t want small businesses to collapse. But those businesses are going to collapse either way. No matter how much risk we put ourselves in, it isn’t enough to keep us afloat without serious assistance from the government. Three stores around the salon have closed. My boss has me calling forty previous customers a day to try to squeeze out a little bit of profit, but most of them say that they don’t feel comfortable going out in a pandemic.
Despite the risk—despite all the customers who won’t put their mask over their nose, being forced to water down the isopropyl alcohol spray and being so understaffed that having symptoms is more of a “throw on an extra mask during your shift” situation—being open just means that businesses are dying slower and employees are paying the price. I could quit, of course, but it took me a semester and a half to find this job, and that was in a healthier economy that wasn’t drowning in desperate people looking for safe work and employers slashing their workforces in half to cut costs. I could take a break from working altogether if it wasn’t for the fact that I don’t qualify for unemployment and have to pay my bills somehow.
As a college student with limited availability, marketable skills and access to financial security, I’m lucky that I’m able to work at all. However, that doesn’t change the fact that my situation puts me at risk, and leadership hasn’t done anything significant to protect the health of those who work in unessential industries.
Art by Noelani Fishman