Jamaal Lane knew what he was doing when he decided to open the Champions Barbering Institute in 2016. He'd started as a barber himself in 2003, and opened his first storefront, Champions Barber Shop in Portland in 2008. The school was an opportunity to get out of the day-to-day business of cutting hair, focus on growing his own business and give back to a new generation of up-and-coming barbers.
It was a big move, but it worked: Early this year, business was good. He’d just enrolled a new class of 20 students at the school and had 14 barbers working for him in three shops across the metro area.
Now, those 14 barbers are among the hundreds of thousands of Oregonians who are out of work.
When Gov. Kate Brown issued an executive order on March 23 requiring Oregonians to stay at home, the order specified non-essential businesses that were forced to close. Fifth on that list? Barber shops and hair salons.
Still, Lane said he wasn’t caught off-guard; he’d already had a meeting with his staff the week before. He wanted to let them decide for themselves whether continuing to work through a growing pandemic was worth the risk.
Barber shops are close-quarters establishments. They follow strict safety and sanitation guidelines, but there’s no social distancing available when you spend your days touching your clients’ heads and faces. Most of Lane’s barbers decided that risk simply wasn’t worth it.
“A lot of them have older family members, they were taking it very seriously,” Lane said. “They were worried about taking it to their families, saying, ‘I could potentially wipe my whole family out.’”
“That’s when it clicked for me,” he said. “Oh, we will be closed soon whether the governor makes a decision here or not.”
While deciding to close his business was a clear decision, navigating the web of government assistance programs has been murky. Lane said he went right ahead and applied for the Economic Injury Disaster Loan Emergency Advance program and the Paycheck Protection Program through the Small Business Administration, but both came up dry.
It’s not just him: Lane said that he doesn’t know of a single barbershop in the state that’s had any luck either.
“I haven’t talked to one shop owner in the state of Oregon that I know — and I know quite a few — that has received funds from either of those programs,” Lane said.
His theory is that businesses like Champions Barbershop and Barbering Institute just aren’t big enough to register with the influx of need: They’ve been crowded out by thousands of other small businesses in the same, urgent situation.
“I have a strong feeling they’re prioritizing the funds to larger companies that are asking for larger sums of money,” he said. “I truly believe that’s what happening.”
Unemployment assistance for his barbers hasn't come through either. He said it's been extremely difficult for them to deal with glitches in the process, especially since they're categorized as independent contractors, which has made navigating an overwhelmed state unemployment system that much more daunting.
Still, he said, so far, his barbers are staying optimistic.
“We try to make sure that our barbers are taking care of themselves, putting themselves in situations where they can do that whatever might happen,” said Lane. But while they’ve been able to make it for the past month, Lane said, it’s the uncertainty that’s beginning to get to his workers.
Can't manage uncertainty
For himself, Lane said he’s used to dealing with the unknown as a small business owner. It’s just part of the terrain.
“You can’t necessarily manage uncertainty,” he said. “The only thing you can know [is] there is no certainty to it.”
He’s already begun to adapt. The 20 new students at the barbering institute are now learning theory and sanitation over Zoom meetings. The closure has even presented a new opportunity he hadn’t previously considered: He’s playing with the idea of expanding the online education presence of his business.
“I’m looking at is as what if our doors never open back up? Do I hang up what I’m doing and just give up? Absolutely not,” Lane said. "We’re still going to move forward, one way or another.”
In the meantime, he’s still looking forward to the day that Champions Barbershop can reopen their doors and get people back in front of his barbers.
A lot of people are really going to need a haircut.
“And it’s going to be super, super busy,” he laughed. “It’s going to be a whole lot. I’m looking forward to it as well.”
Use the audio player above to hear the full conversation from OPB’s “Weekend Edition.”