A Major Bad Hair Day

Bleached scalps. Chipped nails. Rotten perms. If state officials deregulate the beauty industry, things could get ugly.

More than 50 people, many dressed for church, packed State Rep. James Bush's Biscayne Boulevard office this past Sunday with one thing on their minds: hair. Bad hair. Nearly everyone in attendance is a cosmetologist or barber, and they're worried their profession is about to get blown away by lacquer-headed lawmakers in Tallahassee who want to change or do away with the state licensing process, and thus, in the words of cosmetologist Ralph Packingham, "put us at the mercy of bootleggers."

Bush has pledged to help angry hairdressers charter three buses to Tallahassee on March 18, henceforth to be known as Good Hair Day, when cosmetologists and barbers from all over Florida will converge on the capitol to buttonhole legislators. "The bottom line is we want to keep our profession regulated," Azalee Hunt, cosmetology specialist for the Dade County Public Schools, tells the group. "But we've got a fight on our hands. My suggestion is to attach your business card to a copy of your voter registration card and hand those out when you talk to the [legislators]."

"There is no move at all to deregulate barbers and cosmetologists A period," insists Ed Towey, spokesman for the Department of Business and Professional Regulation (DBPR) in Tallahassee. Towey says that if he had any hair, he'd be pulling it out in frustration over a wave of hysteria about "what isn't happening." Towey explains: "We are suggesting that the legislature look at the barber and cosmetology industries to see if the current [regulatory] structure as it's practiced protects the public. Theoretically, if you play out a doomsday scenario, you could see [all regulation] go away, but the chances of that are extraordinarily unlikely. A meteorite could hit the capitol and blow it to bits, too."

The roots of the controversy, Towey explains, are in Gov. Lawton Chiles's inaugural challenge to all state departments to eliminate half of their rules and regulations, as well as the governor's specific orders that DBPR secretary Richard T. Farrell "take a fresh look" at the department's regulatory system.

The agency studied the approximately 40 professions it licenses, as well as the number and nature of complaints it had received about practitioners in each profession. This past January department officials made several recommendations: that there should be legislative deregulation of all or parts of seven professions (auctioneers, interior designers, landscape architects, talent agents, yacht and ship brokers, time-share solicitors, and health-care temporary workers); that four professions (athletic trainers, massage therapists, hearing-aid specialists, and wastewater-treatment operators) should shift to other regulatory agencies; and that four other professions should be studied for "sunset," meaning that the legislature should review them in the future for possible deregulation. Barbers and cosmetologists are among the last group, along with athletic agents, geologists, and construction workers.

Lawmakers, who began their legislative session earlier this week, are hearing from a lot of angry people. South Florida talent agents, for example, are furious that their jobs are among those to be deregulated; just a few years ago they persuaded legislators of the need to weed out fly-by-night agents preying on all the star-struck actors and models flocking to South Beach. Landscape architects warn that charlatans with shovels and pickup trucks may plant trees that die or, worse, collapse on top of people and cause them to die. Hairdressers, however, are probably the most vocal and organized in their opposition.

"There's around 200,000 cosmetologists in this state," says Beverly Kilmer, president of the Tallahassee-based National Alliance of Salon Professionals. (According to Ed Towey, the total number of active barbers and cosmetologists is 134,262, although the number of issued licenses is higher.) "The number of customers who sit in our chairs who we have quality time with is just unbelievable," Kilmer continues. "Salon owners and hairdressers have the ability to determine who's going to be up here making the rules. They don't understand how empowered they are."

Kilmer is the chief architect of the March 18 Good Hair Day and, besides circulating a petition against deregulation, she has been soliciting donations to pay for ads that will be placed this week in newspapers around the state. The ads reiterate the scenarios that make cosmetologists' hair stand on end: You could not only get a bad haircut, you could find yourself in the hands of someone who knows nothing about scalp infections, nail fungi, communicable diseases such as AIDS and hepatitis, or sanitary procedures. "We are not just little hairdressers playing beauty shop," Kilmer reminds her fellow professionals in mailings.

Most cosmetologists can recount horror stories about things such as prospective blondes coming out of an unlicensed salon with green hair, and the dangers of "hair blowup" -- the flammable result of mixing the wrong kinds of hair-color chemicals. It happens now, they say, but it'll happen more if oversight is diminished. The DBPR study, however, concluded that only 2.1 percent of the total 755 cases against cosmetologists during 1993-94 involved "significant physical or mental harm to the public." (The percentage was 1.7 in cases involving barbers.) The remainder of the cases? Ninety-four percent were for license violations, many lodged by one cosmetologist against another, Towey says. "Competitors snitching on each other. Nothing to do with public protection. Also the department's investigative resources are finite; when we're investigating an unlicensed beauty salon in Tamarac, we aren't investigating a dangerous construction site in Orlando." Kilmer counters that the most potentially dangerous unlicensed places, such as homes and flea markets, aren't being scrutinized at all.

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