James Herrera of South Portland works an independently contracted barber and the state says he can go back to work now. Herrera doesn't feel comfortable doing that  yet but isn't sure if he can get unemployment insurance.

SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine — James Herrera has worked at the hardy Mill Creek Barber Shop in a South Portland plaza for 11 years. When it finally opened on Friday, the place was abuzz with customers eager to get quarantine mops cropped.

But Herrera wasn’t among them. It’s unclear when he and workers like him will qualify for unemployment benefits designed in part to keep people home due to the coronavirus.

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Gov. Janet Mills permitted barber shops, hair salons and a few other types of businesses to open on Friday in the first phase of a planned return to normalcy after workplaces closed in March. But many businesses are staffed by workers like Herrera making informed decisions to stay away even though his shop owner has turned the lights back on.

Herrera, an independent contractor, said he is not comfortable working in this stage of the pandemic. When the governor announced last week that barber shops and hair salons were part of the state’s first phase of reopenings, he was shocked.

When the state revealed its checklist of safety measures for barbers — mandating increased sanitization and both disposable gloves and smocks that some stylists said were hard to find — Herrera wanted to wait at least another two weeks to see where the virus stood.

Staying out of work “doesn’t thrill” him. Clients miss him and he misses the income. But he is worried that the reopening could contribute to another spike of the virus.

“I keep thinking, ‘This is not good,” Herrera said. “None of this sounds safe at all, especially for a profession where you have such close contact with your client.”

The state is iffy on whether contractors are eligible for unemployment benefits if they individually choose not to come back to workplaces that have opened. Jessica Picard, a spokesperson for the Department of Labor, answered with “it depends” on Friday, saying the department “would need to look at the reason for not returning to work” and determine good cause.

Other scenarios are more definitive. If a barber worked at a shop whose owner did not reopen after May 1 due to fear of the virus, that worker would be eligible for benefits for the duration of the civil emergency under the federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program. The same would hold true if a salon did not open because the owner felt they could not meet state safety standards.

The state says people in Herrera’s situation should apply for benefits. Though they were available to him on Friday, Herrera waited a day to apply, anticipating that a Friday rush would jam the site and get him nowhere. He fared no better when he did, watching exasperatedly as the platform stumbled over basic questions and spat him out for supposedly faulty passwords.

Herrera called. No one answered. No machine filed him into a queue. He then logged back into the site to leave a comment at the bottom of the form explaining the issue. When he checked off an “I am not a robot” button, the site wiped his entire form clean, he said.

“It’s not lost on me,” Herrera said, that the state permitted him to return to work on the same day as self-employed people and independent contractors became eligible for unemployment. He found the experience “quite frustrating.” He heard through colleagues that Mill Creek Barber Shop was busy, but there has been no pressure from the shop’s owner to come in.

He said he will give the state website one more try, but he is not optimistic. After that, Herrera said he will fill out his unemployment forms via snail mail and return to work when it’s safe. He said if barbers have to do “virtually a health care intake interview” of clients, then it’s too soon.

“I don’t mind being considered the nervous Nellie, but it’s not what I think is a good idea,” Herrera said.

Watch: Reopening a hair salon during a pandemic

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