OLEAN — She said she didn’t bring enough cash with her.
“I had a bad feeling about it,” Leo Wolters Tejera said of his new client, who had received $130 of services Jan. 4 at his salon, WT Hair on North Union Street. He didn’t want to make her uncomfortable, so he let her leave without paying.
She was headed to the bank, he thought. He didn’t even ask her to leave collateral.
“I didn’t because why would I think that was going to happen?” he said.
“That” was a call to Olean Police Department after repeated requests from Wolters Tejera to get payment over five days. The salon owner, who has been operating out of his current digs with fiancé Elle Tejera since August, was frustrated he had to resort to calling the cops.
Frustration only grew when they told him state law doesn’t allow for salon customers to be charged with theft of services. The law that protects New York restaurants from dine-and-dashing also makes stealing services from taxis, theaters, telephone companies — even ski lifts — a crime. But because of how it’s written, it does not protect hair salons.
“Why is this any different from a restaurant?” Wolters Tejera exclaimed, lifting slightly out of his seat during an interview Tuesday. “You’re consuming something that we have to pay for. At a restaurant, you’re eating the food, so if you eat the food you can’t return the food and then leave.”
An amendment to the law that could extend protection to salons and barbershops is in committee right now in New York State Senate. But unless it is passed, businesses like WT Hair will remain unprotected from customers who don’t want to pay for services.
‘WE CAN’T BEND THE PENAL LAW’
After Wolters Tejera called Olean police, the responding officer called the client to encourage her to pay Wolters Tejera. However, police then called Wolters Tejera to let him know the payment issue was now a civil matter.
Olean Police Department’s Capt. Mike Marsfelder said Olean police could not bring criminal charges against WT Hair’s customer because “we follow what’s in the penal law.”
“I’ve been an officer 23 years, and I don’t recall this situation coming up,” Marsfelder said.
Cattaraugus County Sheriff’s Office Capt. Shawn Gregory, who has served for 27 years, said he also couldn’t remember dealing with someone refusing to pay a salon bill. But he became acquainted with the situation Wednesday when he reviewed charges against Samuel Victor Jr.
Victor, 40, was charged by the sheriff’s office with theft of services Monday and issued an appearance ticket for court after he allegedly left a Supercuts Hair Salon in Allegany without paying his bill.
After the Olean Times Herald called the sheriff’s office Wednesday questioning the charges, Gregory called back within an hour, stating the theft of services charges had been changed to petit larceny after consulting with the District Attorney’s office.
“Every now and again you have to make an amendment to charges,” Gregory said.
He said Victor leaving without paying for a haircut could be prosecuted as larceny under the “false promise” definition in Section 155.05, Subdivision 2D of New York’s penal code.
The code reads: “A person obtains property by false promise when, pursuant to a scheme to defraud, he obtains property of another by means of a representation, express or implied, that he or a third person will in the future engage in particular conduct… when he does not intend to engage in such conduct.”
Marsfelder declined to comment on the sheriff department’s specific case. However, he said not paying a salon bill would not count as petit larceny because “it does not involve property.”
“Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think it’s right to walk out and not pay your bill,” he said. “But with the penal law, we can’t bend the penal law in certain situations. Either it fits or it does not fit.”
Marsfelder added that in the future, salons that might find themselves in “circumstances exactly like this” would see their case “handled like this one was.”
ASKING FOR PROTECTION
Wolters Tejera said he has been wracking his brain to think about why salons and barbershops shouldn’t be covered under theft of service law. He can’t think of a reason.
“If someone is unhappy after we’ve done a full consultation… based off something we did incorrectly, I’m more than happy to fix it because obviously we want our guests to feel great about themselves after they leave,” he said. “But if they’re trying to get free service out of us or they got what they asked for and then they have buyer’s remorse, we can’t afford to foot the bill on that.”
Victoria Gayton, owner of Shear Passion hair salon in Olean, said she was shocked to discover that her salon wasn’t protected from theft of services.
Gayton has been a hairdresser for 18 years. While she said she has not personally had problems with clients paying, she hears “all the time” that other salons in the area have had clients’ checks bounce or had fake checks issued to them.
She said she hopes politicians would change the law soon.
“If I did have to deal with this personally, I would hope that the cops would back us up because it’s our industry, it’s how we make our paychecks to pay our bills, to feed our children, to buy our supplies,” Gayton said.
Tyrone Hall, owner of Hall of Fame barbershop on West State Street, said he felt bad for Wolters Tejera after Hall read over social media what happened at the salon.
In 17 years of doing hair, Hall said he’s had “several” people ask for a hairstyle and then refuse to pay because they say they don’t like the results.
“That becomes to me something that’s not right, but really, to kind of smooth and weather the storm, I’ll take a loss with that compared to getting in an argument or a fight with someone,” he said.
But he acknowledged for a new business, especially a salon, that approach isn’t as easy.
“I’m at $17, $20 a haircut, so I’m not going to lose my mind over someone (not paying), but… they’re service compared to ours — they would be at a larger risk than what a barbershop would be, just because of the time it takes to do something like putting a color on.”
Wolters Tejera said after another client in 2017 refused to pay a bill worth more than $100, he started giving clients waivers, which include clauses stating services will not be refunded and corrections are free only at the discretion of the salon owner.
“We didn’t get into this because we wanted to nickle and dime anybody — we got into this because we like people, we like hair, we like our community and we wanted to be a part of the growth of our community. But it’s scary,” Wolters Tejera said.
Wolters Tejera has a civil court date set for February. But civil court winnings are hard to collect — many websites dedicated to explaining proceedings even recommend retaining a lawyer who specializes in collecting settlements.
A LAW TO GIVE ‘PEACE OF MIND’
Marsfelder pointed out that New York law is specific to the types of services that can be stolen from, so it must be amended to include additional services. In New York, any business not listed under theft of services that has a customer refuse to pay cannot seek criminal charges against the customer.
Laws like those in Pennsylvania are much more broad. Penal law in that state use terms such as “labor” and “professional” to describe some of the types of services protected.
The reasoning for the newest New York theft of services amendment, as detailed on the State Senate website, states salons and barbershops have come under “significant financial stress” from customers leaving without paying for service, something that’s been exacerbated by the country’s economic downturn.
“This group of small businesses is no different than a supermarket or clothes retailer who would be able to bring a criminal prosecution for Petit Larceny against those who steal their products,” the reasoning reads.
Service industries that can be stolen from under the law include:
• Hotels and motels
• Public transportation
• Cable TV providers
• Telephone or telegraph providers
• Utility providers who deliver supplies such as water or gas
• Equipment, facilities or labor owned by a commercial or industrial company
• Computer services
• Theaters hosting concerts or performances that require admission
• Ski lift operators
The bill would make salon or barbershop theft of services a violation for first-time offenders. Theft of services is often a class A misdemeanor, though offenses can range from a violation to a class E felony.
Bill sponsor state Sen. Marisol Alcantara, D-Upper Manhattan, said the amendment will bring “peace of mind” to shop owners.
“In my neighborhood, Washington Heights, hairdressers and salons make up a big part of the small business community,” said the Labor Committee chair in an email interview. “I was surprised to learn that the police cannot act when customers steal services, and I thought that should be addressed.”
Alcantara said the bill is moving to committee on Monday, and she is working to bring the bill out of committee and to the floor for a vote.
State Sen. Catharine Young, R-Olean, said she would support the bill because “businesses need and deserve recourse if they are the victims of theft.”
“Small businesses are the economic backbone of our communities,” she said in an email interview. “Throughout my time in public service, I’ve always been on the side of these hardworking New Yorkers. When people steal services from salons and barbershops, the impact to the bottom line is just as detrimental as when products are stolen from retailers’ store shelves.”
Wolters Tejera is hoping lawmakers will act on the support they have voiced.
“This amendment to this law is 100 percent necessary to protect us, especially as small business owners,” he said.
To view the bill or comment on it, visit www.nysenate.gov/legislation/bills/2017/S6343.
(Contact City Editor Danielle Gamble at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter, @OTHGamble)