Hair braiders meticulously weave through natural and synthetic hair inside an Essex County salon, sometimes working on up to 10 clients a day. To do it legally, they’ve got to take about 50 days or 1,200 hours of classes in New Jersey. The problem is, almost none of the cosmetology schools in the state teach anything about braiding.
“We get this from back home. We don’t have to go to school. We learn from each other — you sisters, your neighbor, your cousin. We braid each other’s hair since 7 to 8 years-old, you start doing somebody’s hair,” said Fatima, the owner of a hair braiding salon.
The law mostly affects women, especially of West African descent, who learn hair braiding as part of their culture and use it as a means to get by after immigrating to the U.S. Fatima’s salon employs eight women. She asked us not to use her last name or that of her business, because she operates without a license.
“If I have to go to school it’s going to cost me $17,000 to $20,000, and how I can get that if I don’t work? So to go to school, I have to close the shop and go to school. I cannot do that. I cannot pay the school, and I have family I have to take care of here and back home,” she said.
Members of the Legislature heard that plea, and Assemblywoman Angela McKnight is sponsoring a bill to remove hair braiders from under New Jersey’s cosmetology license.
“Some of them have been opening up a business not knowing they have to get this license, and then here comes the cosmetology commission that comes in and says, OK where’s your license? So some of them have been getting fined a lot of money,” said McKnight.
New Jersey is one of 13 states requiring hair braiders to be licensed by the State Board of Cosmetology and Hairstyling. But a study by the Institute for Justice shows there’s little evidence that licensing protects the health and safety of consumers or licensees. Proponents argue natural hair braiders aren’t in contact with chemicals or hazardous materials.
The bill would set up a regulatory commission so hair braiders aren’t operating without any oversight.
“The committee will oversee them. I’m happy that we will have that committee because it will make sure that they are a registered business so that they can continue to pay their taxes and help this economic engine that we have. And it will oversee them to make sure they’re doing OK, that they have a clean place and they’re running a business like a business should run,” McKnight said.
“When we first come from back home, we don’t speak the language, we don’t know where to go. We just have the visa, so this is the work that we can do without having fear,” Fatima said. “So if it’s not this hair braiding, I don’t know what I can do.”
The bill still needs to clear the Senate Appropriations Committee and a full Senate vote before heading to Gov. Murphy’s desk. Twenty-three other states already exempt hair braiders from licensing requirements. Those found operating without one in New Jersey have been fined as much as $10,000. Those we spoke with say that’s enough to put them out of business or worse.