Episode 1: The hair salon owner shocked by which billers would and wouldn’t help

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Courtesy photo. (Photo illustration by Natasha Vicens/PublicSource)

Courtesy photo. (Photo illustration by Natasha Vicens/PublicSource)

The coronavirus has devastated Pittsburgh's small business owners. Dana Bannon, the owner of a Millvale hair salon, is one of them. On this episode, she talks about closing her doors and calling all the places she soon owed money to, money that she wouldn't have.

JOURDAN HICKS: We are a different Pittsburgh than we were just a few weeks ago. Coronavirus is turning life as we know it upside down. But the realities are different for everyone. On this podcast, we're sharing voices from our community to track the effects of the pandemic in southwestern Pennsylvania. I'm Jourdan Hicks, community correspondent for PublicSource.

On today's episode, we have a story about how devastating this public health crisis has been for Pittsburgh's small business owners. Dana Bannon is one of them. Dana opened Page Boy Salon in Millvale 10 years ago.

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She has eleven employees, six stylists, a barber, two specialists and four shop assistants. And when it was clear she was going to have to close her doors, she made a gut-wrenching to-do list that included calling all the places she soon owed money to, money that she wouldn't have: her mortgage company, Duquesne light, Water Authority, Comcast, Gas Company, her health insurance. And as she went down her list, she was feeling kind of hopeful. Everyone was kind, understanding and willing to work with her ---- until she got to the end of her list.

DANA: “The only company that not only refused to defer any payments but also refused to offer any help was UPMC.”

JOURDAN HICKS: We're going to share with you Dana's story in her own words but first: what we want you to know is that we reached out to UPMC for comment. They asked to be connected to Dana directly and also provided a statement saying the company is working to develop a consistent shared approach that will give small businesses the relief they need while also protecting ongoing access to affordable coverage. The statement said that until there's a policy, they're working small business members on a case by case basis. This is how that approach has affected Dana and her employees.

DANA: I'm Dana Bannon, mom of three, and I live in Crafton, but I've been in Pittsburgh since I was 3 years old. I own and operate Page Boy salon and boutique. We just celebrated our 10 year anniversary yesterday.

I went to hair school kind of just as, almost like we'll see if this is going to turn into anything, and I fell in love with it. It is something that I had no idea I was so passionate about because it's so much more than just doing the hair. The thing I love about it most is the personal connections I make with my clients. Then on top of that, getting to listen and sometimes change someone's day completely in the matter of a couple hours. It's really fulfilling for me.

Seven years ago, I decided that I wanted to offer a better quality of life to the people that I employ.

So I pay them a competitive wage and I offer health insurance.

The stress of other people's lives depend on me opening my doors every day is one that has kept a pit in my stomach.

NEWS CLIP: The city of Pittsburgh has declared a state of emergency and banned public gatherings of 250 people or more...

DANA: It was Friday. I remember we had three different types of medical professionals as clients that day in three different chairs at three different times. And they all kind of were like playing it down --like, this is gonna blow over. This is crazy. I can't believe they're talking about closing schools. This doesn't kill as many people as the flu--kind of was keeping us from panicking; and then, three of us are mothers, and our phones started going off.

PHONE CLIP: Good evening, PPS Families and staff. This is Superintendent Hamlet calling with an update this afternoon. Governor Wolf announced the closure of all schools in the Commonwealth for at least 10 days. This means that beginning Monday, March 16th, schools will be closed...

DANA: When the schools closed is when panic started to settle in; panic because I thought we were still going to be working. I just thought, well, people can't come during the day if they have their kids. So we're gonna have to work evenings, like we're gonna have to work 3pm to 9pm instead of 12pm to 8pm. We put a thing up that said no more than just you - the person getting the service was allowed in the salon --no friends, no loved ones, no kids. I joke around all the time, Eagle's Nest rules apply at Page Boy. If you can't go to the Eagles Nest at Giant Eagle, you can't come to the salon.

So those were the preparations I was making as a business owner because I was like, we can't close. If we close, we bring in zero dollars. We don't have e-commerce. We don't have anything to sell outside of our services. Yeah, we sell shampoo and conditioner and hairspray and a bobby pin. But like, that's not making our income.

The more and more I saw people kind of not taking it seriously, like not one person canceled for the last week. People are insane about their hair.

That night I was sobbing in tears, but I was like, I have to close. I have to tell the girls Monday morning because I felt like it was immoral to be somewhere that people would leave their homes and choose to go to. We can't work. We can't be open, just can't do it. It's socially beyond irresponsible.

So I notified my hourly girls first and I told them, please file for unemployment today. And then I texted the stylists and the barber and the esthetician and let them know that we were going to close to please contact all your people. Don't rebook them because we don't know an official open date and to file for unemployment.
So then my next focus was payroll. I was going to have to generate $7,000 roughly. And that's when I start panicking again because I don't have any money. So I put a stop on every tax that was going to go out and that freed up enough money to pay my employees their last paycheck. A big weight was lifted off my shoulders because I felt like, OK, they're paid. Now the money is gone.

Basically, I just went down the line and contacted every bill, creditor, anything, and I just said, here's where I'm at. What can you do for me? Every single bill had something to offer. My mortgage, they're basically just deferring my loan for three months. Almost every utility company was like, we'll take you off auto-pay; pay what you can when you can.

The only company that not only refused to defer any payments, but also refused to offer any help was UPMC.

It's about $2200 a month and I don't have it. And so I called them and told him the situation.

I said, we've been mandated to close and I wanted to see what my options were for my monthly premiums to be deferred, suspended or any help you can offer. And his answer was, I'll take you off auto-pay. But no, I don't believe we're doing anything to relieve monthly premiums at this time.

And I was like, well, can you then guarantee me that coverage won't be terminated if the bills aren't paid?

No, I cannot guarantee you that.

How can I defer Comcast and they won't shut off my Internet or Duquesne Light or Equitable Gas or all these things that are like essentials--they're not allowed to shut it off. But UPMC is not held accountable and will not guarantee that they won't terminate their insurance if I don't pay for it.

I cannot have my employees insurance terminated during a health crisis. Like, that's insane. This is criminal to me.

Everyone's out there, ‘small business this, small business that, order takeout, gift cards, support your virtual tip jar,’ like we're all trying to help everybody out. And the one company that could single-handedly help the majority of our city and surrounding areas out is like, we're good; we don't have to help anybody out.

People should not have to fear health care in a health crisis pandemic. Like you should know that the one thing you're going to have is your insurance and be able to get care if you need it.

That's what's boggling my mind. It's not just an economy thing, it's a health thing. People have to know that they have care or they're not going to go and then they're going to potentially die or infect other people.

My mortgage lender is like, we're good. I'm going to help you out. And UPMC is basically like, not us. We're just over here profiting off of this.

The email that they sent was like a blanket statement: here's how UPMC is handling Covid-19. Wash your hands, basically, is what it told me. And then it said a bunch of very confusing language, which I find all of this stuff that is coming out with these relief loans and SBA disaster relief and Senate bills -- it's very confusing. And yes, we own businesses but we're not geniuses. We're not managers with MBAs. We're just average people; most of us are just doing a service and then created a business around it. We don't know what a lot of this means and I'm so afraid I'm going to mess up. And then there's not going to be something there that could have helped me or I'm going to screw my employees over because I had them go on unemployment. But they should have stayed as employees because once you are laid off do you have health insurance? No.

Like there's just this constant fear that I'm doing something wrong. It's like they're putting our information, like we're getting tweets all day or something. It's like these little blurbs of info that constantly change.

I haven't even told my employees. I mean, the hardest thing - the hardest thing - about what I do, what any owner does, is when you hit a stressful speed bump, whether it's a slow month, a renovation, a flood, a pandemic -- you gotta put on your happy face every day because the minute you panic, they panic. Meanwhile, I want to throw up every day sometimes.

But with this, like I was public about my annoyance with UPMC, but I have not said to anybody that I can't pay it. I will pay it if it disrupts their service. I will figure out a way to pay it. But I'm borrowed out. I cannot believe that the first thing that came out was a low-interest loan. We should not be feeling the burden of the relief for the next 15 years.

I sold some, like at-home root touch up kits; the money that I got from that I distributed to my employees through like a tip jar, a virtual tip jar. I just put out all of their Venmos including my desk girls because they do everything for us and was just like, hey, if you miss seeing your person, shoot them five bucks because we're not making money.

I'm just going to assume we're opening up in April. That's my goal. April. And if it doesn't happen, then I'll reevaluate. Because like if I start going down the rabbit hole, that is, oh my God, what if we don't open until the summer? Like it could get dark.

I'm not. I refuse to go past April, mentally.

JOURDAN HICKS: On Monday March 30th, Governor Tom Wolf announced that all Pennsylvania schools and non-life-sustaining businesses will remain closed until further notice. As of this recording, there are more 24,000 confirmed cases of the coronavirus in Pennsylvania.

This podcast was produced by Andy Kubis and edited by Mila Sanina and Halle Stockton.

If you have a story you’d like to share, please get in touch with us. You can text a voice memo to 412-432-9669 or email it to jourdan@publicsource.org.

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