When people ask me what I do, I tell them I do it all. I’m a salon owner, run a catering business, and attend business school. But I’m also a mom, a daughter, and a sister, so that means I’m a child care provider and a caregiver when the need arises. During the pandemic, the need arose.
During the pandemic, being a caregiver became a full-time job for me. One of my kids has Down Syndrome and was at high risk. I had to put my child’s safety first. And then, in November, my brother got Covid. My mom lives with him and she tested positive, too. Then my sister-in-law and their two kids needed support— and I am their support. While they were quarantined and recovered, I took care of them — errands, the drugstore, groceries. The whole time, I felt so scared — for them, for my family, for my business, but what could I do? They’re my family and they needed me.
For a whole month while they were sick, I could barely step foot in the salon, and things pretty much unraveled. When I launched my salon in Tempe, we went into it clear-eyed. In the business plan, we’d given ourselves a year before we were profitable, and we had just turned that corner. But that was before Covid hit and changed everything. I had to let two employees go. On top of that, my catering company had no profit at all. Nobody needed catering. All that I’d worked for, all the ways I found to turn my talents into small businesses that helped make my community strong — it was like someone dropped a bomb on them overnight.
All of a sudden, my budget shrank and my responsibilities grew. I was caring for two families on half my income. And once my mother and my brother’s family were getting healthy, my sister and her family got sick. I jumped right back in and the routine started again. I was stretched thin again for another two weeks.
Looking back, having a paid leave policy would have been a game-changer for me, for my employees, for my business, for my family. I certainly hope we never have another pandemic like this, but what I learned was that when someone in your family needs care — doesn’t matter what for — you’re on your own. That’s not right, and it’s definitely not right for small business owners like me. Nobody should have to choose between caring for themselves or a loved one and their livelihood.
When I started my business, I would have loved to have a paid leave plan — but for a small start-up like mine, it simply wasn’t possible. But I know the benefits — paid leave helps retain staff, which is cost effective in the long term, and it helps level the playing field between businesses like mine and bigger national competitors. And I learned that in states that have paid leave plans, it hasn’t been burdensome to businesses. And in an industry like salons, where many stylists are independent contractors, we can’t leave out sole proprietors in any plan.
And where I live, we need it. Women make up nearly half of Arizona’s labor force and more than one-quarter of its business owners. And my experience, as I saw all around me, wasn’t unique. Women, especially Black, Latina AAPI and Native American mothers, were hit hardest by pandemic closures, working in many of the most-affected industries and bearing the brunt of increased caregiving without schools or child care. At the end of 2020, Arizona’s labor force had lost 19,000 workers and nearly five times as many women were unemployed compared to one year earlier.
Those numbers are shocking, and worse, they’re unnecessary.
That’s why I’m using my voice to tell our elected leaders that paid leave must be part of the economic recovery from the pandemic. Paid leave has to be a part of any economic and jobs legislation and it has to happen now, this year. Otherwise, that recovery won’t include people like me — now or in the future. This is an opportunity to support small businesses — to make it easier for people like me in Arizona and all over the country to start small businesses that thrive, and to make caring for our families possible, too. It’s win/win, and so no wonder 70% of small business owners support it. When something’s win/win, that’s where you put your money. Let’s get paid leave passed now.
Portia Jones is the co-owner of Mad Skillz Salon and founder of So Damn Good Cuisine near Phoenix, and a member of the Main Street Alliance.