Just outside the Forecast Salon in Homewood is a gigantic mural painted along the wall. It features every color of the rainbow jumping out into the street. You’re up close with a 10-foot disco ball painted right beside a unicorn and two massive blue and purple manicured coifs.
Forecast’s owner Brittany McNaughton (friends call her Mert) chose the bright and welcoming mural as a manifestation of her personal philosophy.
“Big! Bold! Sunshine!” she says as we look at it. “The vibes are all there!”
Mert and Forecast’s co-owner, Mark Hyde, had a lot to look forward to in February 2020.
They had just reopened their salon in Homewood, just south of Birmingham, after an extensive expansion. Forecast had to shut its doors for three weeks. The renovations brought the space up to 16 chairs and almost doubled the original floorspace. The future looked bright.
Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and their world stopped.
“We’d been open for five years, but when 2020 happened, it felt like I had to go dark,” Mert said. “This massive adrenaline rush told me I had to stop expanding and keep my business afloat.”
Mert had just brought on some new stylists, and she said she probably could have hired even more. But soon she learned that the pandemic was shifting her focus from growth to her staff’s “mental capacity.”
Mert said that’s when she realized the shutdown would be longer than three weeks. And it wasn’t just about closing the physical doors to the shop.
“We went from managing everyone’s safety to all of a sudden seeing where our staff was just not doing so well,” she said.
More than just a paycheck
In a rare move in the salon industry, Forecast offers to pay for a portion of its stylists’ health insurance. After two years, they also contribute to employees’ 401(k) retirement accounts.
Another benefit that Mert said was useful during the pandemic was flexible scheduling. She said stylists are encouraged to take personal days off, especially for mental health.
“Whenever you have someone that’s not doing great personally or mentally outside of work, they bring that energy in with them into the workspace, and it can affect the people around you,” Mert said.
Gov. Kay Ivey allowed barbershops and salons to reopen in May 2020 after the initial wave of pandemic shutdowns. It was a first step toward returning to business as usual. But for stylists, that meant getting up close and personal again – and many weren’t ready.
“We work in such an intimate space,” said Mark, Forecast’s co-owner. “We’re up close, touching our clients. It sometimes takes years for these young stylists to build up trust but also build up a shell that can protect them from negative energy or venting clients day in and day out.”
A focus on mental health
Mark and Mert decided to shore up the salon’s career development offerings beyond just continuing education on hair. They brought in local therapists, healers and self-help experts to discuss mental health. Their goal was to help teach stylists how not to take the stresses of personal care work home with them.
“Moving out of the pandemic, I saw a need to bring in programming focusing specifically on mental health and not just hair,” Mert said.
Mark and Mert agree that they can’t do it all. But they said they try their hardest to provide as much as they can for their staff.
“Nowhere is perfect,” Mert said. “I set standards for mental health here in the salon, but I’m not trained to treat anyone’s problems. I’m trained to do hair. That’s where therapists and doctors come in.”
More money in the pocket for both stylists and salon owners
Mert said she hopes that one day all salons will offer health insurance and other benefits. But she also said she knows that’s not a realistic option for all salons. And unfortunately, that means many stylists will have no affordable option for health coverage unless Alabama expands Medicaid.
Across Alabama, about 10,000 stylists and other personal care workers would benefit from Medicaid expansion. More than 220,000 Alabamians are caught in the coverage gap, unable to afford health insurance. Another 120,000 or more are stretching to pay for private or employer-based insurance.
Part of Forecast’s recent renovation was expanding to hire more younger stylists and apprentices into their already robust education program. Not everyone at Forecast would qualify for coverage under Medicaid expansion, but most newer stylists likely would, Mert said.
Both owners agree that it would be nice to be able to pay stylists an extra $200 to $400 every month. That amount could help cover their groceries or a car payment.
“It’s expensive to provide insurance as a business. That’s why a lot of people don’t do it,” Mert said. “Medicaid expansion would end up creating more revenue for the business and put more money into that stylist’s pocket.”
The benefits for the local economy wouldn’t end there. Jefferson County could realize upwards of $298.6 million in additional economic impact in year one as a result of closing the health coverage gap. Medicaid expansion also would extend coverage to more than 22,500 county residents who didn’t have it before.
I asked Mert what Forecast Salon would do with the extra money when the day finally comes.
“As a business owner, I already know what I’m gonna do with that money,” she said. “Invest it right back into our people.”
ABOUT ALABAMA ARISE AND COVER ALABAMA
Whit Sides is the Cover Alabama storyteller for Alabama Arise, a statewide, member-led organization advancing public policies to improve the lives of Alabamians who are marginalized by poverty. Arise’s membership includes faith-based, community, nonprofit and civic groups, grassroots leaders and individuals from across Alabama. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Arise is a founding member of the Cover Alabama coalition. Cover Alabama is a nonpartisan alliance of advocacy groups, businesses, community organizations, consumer groups, health care providers and religious congregations advocating for Alabama to provide quality, affordable health coverage to its residents and implement a sustainable health care system.