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Guest commentary: Mask makers beware: Working at home is fine, as long as you don’t have employees

Alexa Gray wears a mask as she enters a souvenir shop along the Pacific Beach boardwalk that was selling them.
(K.C. Alfred / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

After my commentary about mask making was published in The San Diego Union-Tribune in early April, I received requests for hundreds of masks in the span of 24 hours. It was overwhelming!

I panicked a little and considered just telling people, “Sorry, no,” when the requests kept coming in, but the emails were so sweet. Many were from elderly or compromised people, often alone and unable to drive around looking for a store that sold masks. Remember, for a while, they just weren’t available anywhere. I just made a long list and started plowing through them.

After sewing nearly full time seven days a week for about three weeks, I had them all mailed out. It was exhausting but very fulfilling. Because so many recipients were seniors who grew up in the era of thank-you notes, I received dozens of cards and many repeat requests.

To date, I’ve made over 1,000 masks. I can practically sew them with my eyes closed. I’ve tried different patterns and styles but keep coming back to the basic pleated mask that people say fits the best.

I gave away about 800 but then started selling them to businesses like Surf Diva, a La Jolla shop owned by friends of mine. At one point, I ran out of material. I scrounged from my fabric bins at home — always amusing to see people walking around with masks made of leftover fabric from ancient projects such as my husband’s Hawaiian-print car seat covers, my son’s curtains and our duvet — and started purchasing edgier and unusual designs from Needlecraft Cottage in Pacific Beach.

Surf Diva is now selling them faster than I can sew them.

The world may be navigating uncharted waters when it comes to the COVID-19 pandemic, but the surfing community in La Jolla Shores is still staying afloat with heavy modifications.

I am still needing to take it easy after lung surgery in January, unfortunately, but it is nice to have this creative outlet.

One aspect of mask making that I haven’t seen addressed in the news is that California strictly regulates garment manufacturing. Anyone wanting to start an apparel sewing company has to have a license from California’s Division of Labor Standards Enforcement. The exception is if you have no employees. Otherwise, you must pay $750 to $2,500 a year, study and sit for an exam and follow stringent rules. One of those rules prohibits working at home. That means those selling masks right now and working out of their homes with one employee or more are technically in violation of the state’s labor standards.

It’s really limiting: If you start a sewing business at home and it becomes so successful that you need help, you have to get your license (it’s not just expensive and requires the exam, but the process also takes two to three months) and then move the business out of the house and rent commercial space. If you’re found to be out of compliance, the state can shut you down and confiscate your inventory and machinery.

I possess a license, as I’d been planning on launching my hair accessories business (and still am, hoping for this fall). But I am thinking of all the people affected by this regulation, people just trying to make ends meet when their jobs dried up. The “no home working” regulation was well-intentioned, as the garment industry was long known for rampant labor violations and long, underpaid workdays in unsafe conditions. But I think the pandemic and subsequent upsurge of in-home sewing businesses makes it imperative to look at this regulation anew.

It’s not fair to businesses that do pay the high annual licensing fees and must rent outside space to stay compliant, nor to small businesses just wanting to sell some masks and crafts without the expense and strangling regulations required by licensing. Common sense says that a home-based sewing business with a couple of employees could possibly be exempted.

In the meantime, Surf Diva has a selection of masks with Frida Kahlo, octopuses and groovy 1970s prints in stock, as long as I can keep up.

Susan Wiczynski is the former owner of a nursing school uniform manufacturing company. She lives in La Jolla. This commentary was first published by The San Diego Union-Tribune.