A barber who had been cutting hair for more than 50 years never set out to make a stand. He just wanted to pay his bills.
When Winerd “Les” Jenkins first became a barber, Neil Armstrong hadn’t yet set foot on the moon. For over five decades, Jenkins has made a living with his scissors and razor. For the past decade, he’s worked his craft from a storefront in Inwood, West Virginia. At Les’ Place Traditional Barber Shop, you can get a regular men’s haircut for $16 and a shave for $14—but come prepared to pay the old-fashioned way: in cash.
His insistence on “cash only” isn’t the only thing that’s old-school about Jenkins. He lives with his wife of 52 years on a small farm, where the couple raises rescued animals. He believes in paying his bills on time. He doesn’t use the internet, email, or text messaging. And he’s skeptical that his profession can become illegal overnight merely on the governor’s say-so.
This combination of old-fashioned values led to the soft-spoken barber’s arrest this spring. His story shows how governments’ uncoordinated coronavirus response has caught working Americans in its crossfire—and how the apparatus of occupational licensing has functioned as the state’s enforcement mechanism to shut down small business.
Denied Unemployment Assistance
When Les Jenkins first heard about the Wuhan coronavirus, his first concern wasn’t for his own livelihood but that of his wife, Sue. She is medically fragile, on oxygen after an illness left her with Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) several years ago. “I thought long and hard about whether I should risk taking the virus home to her,” Jenkins told me. “But this is my only real source of income.”
Even before the state of West Virginia began issuing mandates to contain the virus, Jenkins was already putting his own protection measures in place for Sue’s sake. He wore a mask and gloves, sanitized tools and surfaces, and changed clothes upon coming home every evening.
On March 19, West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice ordered all hair salons and barbershops to close. Most salon owners got the message through the media. The West Virginia Board of Barbers and Cosmetologists (WVBBC) published guidelines on its website but didn’t proactively contact its license-holders.
“The West Virginia Board of Barbers never sent me any written instructions, never called, never sent an inspector to tell me to close,” Jenkins said. “The fellow who works with me saw it on the internet and told me about it.”
Jenkins initially complied with the order, using the time off to make renovations to his store. “After about three weeks, money started getting pretty tight,” Jenkins told me. At his local bank, he was turned down for a Paycheck Protection Program loan, due to operating an all-cash business. He called Workforce West Virginia to apply for pandemic-related unemployment assistance. “The unemployment office told me that in order to get assistance, I had to provide evidence that I’d been ordered to close.”
On April 10, to get the documentation needed for unemployment, Jenkins wrote to the WVBBC, requesting a signed letter to confirm the governor’s closure order. He never received a reply.
Reported to the State
By the time two more weeks had gone by with no income, Jenkins was in real fear of losing his home, farm, and business. “I’m 72 years old,” he told me. “What else am I going to do if not this? Who’s going to hire me?”
On Wednesday, April 22, Jenkins quietly opened his shop and cut hair for seven customers—all walk-ins, including several police officers. It would be his only day in operation. The next morning a WVBBC inspector came to the door. “I’ve known her for years, and we talked for a little while about her family,” Jenkins said. “Everything was cordial.”
The inspector told Jenkins the WVBBC had received a complaint the prior week from another local hairstylist, contending that Jenkins was open for business during the shutdown. Jenkins denied seeing customers at the time of the complaint—he was in his shop making renovations—but he admitted to being open the previous day.
He told the WVBBC inspector that he would be willing to close his shop if she would provide him with a copy of the governor’s closure order, signed for verification. The inspector returned to her car. “I assumed she was going to get the letter I had asked for,” Jenkins recalls. Instead, she was calling the sheriff. Two deputies promptly arrived.
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