BOSTON, Mass. (SHNS)–An Amherst lawmaker on Thursday appealed to a state board to consider measures she said would help an industry that the COVID-19 pandemic has hit “maybe as hard as restaurants, but with much less attention.”

“I trust you know better than me how many barbers went out of business in the past two years due to COVID,” Rep. Mindy Domb told the Board of Registration of Cosmetology and Barbering, asking its members to consider proposals she said are aimed at bolstering the barber pipeline at a time when small shops are having trouble staffing up.

Domb and Rep. Tackey Chan, the House chair of the Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure Committee, wrote to the board in February, expressing interest in “revisiting” some of the regulations around barber schools “to better suit the changing needs of Massachusetts residents.”

The lawmakers flagged regulations that they said “state that a barber school must have a minimum of 25 students and a separate facility in order to operate in the Commonwealth.” They said they “would appreciate the opportunity to collaborate with your office to create a more favorable environment for barbering schools to open and operate in the Commonwealth and expand opportunities for Massachusetts residents to learn and deliver this service for the benefit of our community members.”

Division of Occupational Licensure Commissioner Layla D’Emilia wrote back to Domb and Chan later that month, informing them that the board had recently approved draft regulations that would lower the required number of barber school chairs from 25 to 15 and permit schools in certain instances to use the same clinic space for cosmetology and barbering programs, with one taking place during the daytime and the other at night.

On Thursday, Domb told board members she appreciates the regulatory changes thus far, and she reiterated her request that they consider further reducing the required number of students and allowing barber shops to serve as classrooms in their off-hours. Domb was accompanied by a constituent, Amherst barber Matt Haskins, and they described a need to bring more barbers into the field, particularly in Western Massachusetts. Haskins said the western part of the state has a “deficit of barbers” and limited training options available.

He said roughly 300 regular clients will “completely max out a barber,” and that in a 20-mile radius around his business, Matt’s Barber Shop, the population outpaces barbers to the point that “we’re now looking at a ratio of about 6,000 people to every one barber.” “We’ve got, at my shop, a three-week waiting period to get a haircut and if someone is sick, a barber’s sick, you have to call that customer that booked three weeks ahead and say, ‘I’m sorry, we can’t get you in for another three weeks, because we’re already working 10 hour days and we’re completely chock full,'” Haskins said. “It’s not that the demand isn’t there. There’s just not enough barbers.” In two years of advertising openings, Haskins said he has gotten two licensed applicants.

Board members raised a number of points during the discussion, including the importance of having licensed instructors, what would happen to the students if a barber teaching five students out of their shop fell ill and couldn’t keep up the coursework, the need to protect students and the public, and fairness toward existing barber schools that have long histories in the industry. They expressed an interest in continued conversation with the Legislature.

Members said they and friends in the field have also grappled with staffing challenges. “I’m in the city and I can’t find anyone, so it’s kind of crazy,” said Erinn Pearson Breedy, who owns Simply Erinn’s Unisex Hair Salon in Cambridge.

Vice Chair Joy Talbot said the board takes seriously any suggestions it receives, and that if it does opt to make any changes, they could take years and would not be a quick fix. “That’s the unfortunate part. I have been in this business for many years,” she said. “I have friends in your area so I realize the situation that the western part of Massachusetts is dealing with at this time and always has been. It’s worse now with the COVID, and I understand that.”

Domb said she hoped pursuing change through regulations could be “a little faster” than the time it often takes to pass a law, and said she would be “working to expedite action.” “If we do it as usual, if we kind of just accept the normal timeframe for making change, we won’t be meeting the need that exists right now, and the need will continue to grow,” she said. “I can’t believe the data Matt provided us with — 6,000 customers to every barber will be 10,000 customers to every barber, and then Western Massachusetts will look a mess because we won’t be able to get our hair cut.”