Covid-19 rekindles debate over license requirements for many jobs

Beauticians attend customers at a beauty parlour (Photo: PTI)
Beauticians attend customers at a beauty parlour (Photo: PTI)


Hair styling and medical fields are among the occupations where state rules can bar entry; Biden has pushed for changes

The coronavirus pandemic has heated up the long simmering debate on whether a swath of workers should need a license for jobs such as hair braiding, nursing and fitness training.

More than 1,100 occupations are licensed in at least one state, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Last year, 29 million workers, nearly a quarter of those employed full time, held a license, the Labor Department said. In the 1950s, about 5% of workers had licenses, according to researchers.

President Biden, a Democrat, and some congressional Republicans say the need to hold a license to work in many different roles blocks Americans from taking well-paying jobs. Those concerns have been raised as job openings rose to a record 10.1 million at the end of June, but 3.4 million fewer workers were in the labor force that month versus February 2020, before the pandemic took hold in the U.S.

Advocates of the requirements say licenses and regulations around occupations such as barbers and insurance agents help keep the public healthy and protected, something that came into sharper focus during the pandemic.

Mr. Biden signed an executive order last month calling for the streamlining of occupational licensing requirements, which are set by states, as part of a broader effort intended to increase competition. The order asked the Federal Trade Commission to ban unnecessary occupational licensing restrictions that impede economic mobility.

A White House representative said last week that in certain occupations, such as skilled construction trades, licensing protects public safety and increases wages for workers who acquire in-demand skills. But in other occupations those rules make it difficult to enter the field without countervailing benefits. Which specific occupations will be addressed is up to the FTC, the representative said. An FTC spokeswoman declined to comment.

Both the Trump and Obama administrations also sought to ease licensing rules. In May, the Republican Study Committee’s alternative budget called “to reduce the burden of occupational licensing requirements, which often have more to do with intentional barriers to entry than safety." Reps. Darrell Issa (R., Calif.), Diana Harshbarger (R., Tenn.) and Jim Banks (R., Ind.) have introduced legislation to lessen such regulations.

Licensing rules have made it difficult for Afro Touch, a hair-braiding salon in Gretna, La., to hire workers and have halted the company’s expansion plans, said manager Ashley N’Dakpri.

The salon only focuses on hair braiding, she said, but in Louisiana, her workers need to first complete 500 hours of training to obtain a cosmetologist’s license, or else face fines up to $5,000. She said many prospective employees pass on the job when they learn about the requirements.

If licensing rules were relaxed, “I’ll be able to give employment to people," she said, adding having more braiders would also help the business’s sales.

“We do not use any chemicals, we use our fingers, we use a comb, and creativity," Ms. N’Dakpri said.

Afro Touch has filed a lawsuit against the Louisiana State Board of Cosmetology over licensing rules. Sheri Morris, an attorney representing the board declined to comment on the salon specifically, but said fines are given for infractions such as failure to maintain sanitary conditions. She added that there are more than 25,000 cosmetologists in the state licensed to braid hair and 50 schools where students can be trained to earn a license.

Carolyn Verdin, New Orleans apprentice coordinator of UFCW Local 496, a barber and cosmetology labor union in Louisiana, said the training required to obtain a license teaches practitioners about proper sanitation and how to respond to allergic reactions.

“I would want to get a license and learn about bacteria, so I could be able to best serve my clients in case something does arise," she said.

Licensing rules are set by state bodies and cover occupations such as plumbers, auctioneers and massage therapists. The patchwork of state rules makes it difficult for Washington lawmakers to impose changes.

State legislatures often put in place licensing requirements to respond to health and safety concerns. Once in place those rules are difficult to roll back, in part because license holders advocate to keep them.

Occupational licenses create a barrier for potential competing workers to enter the field, said Morris Kleiner, a professor at the University of Minnesota who studies licensing. That means license holders can charge more for their services, which raises consumer prices, while earning more and having better job security, he said.

Some states are making changes. In 2019, Arizona became the first to recognize all out-of-state licenses and in 2020 Florida reduced or eliminated licensing requirements for more than 30 occupations. Colorado, New Jersey and New Mexico have removed citizenship requirements for licenses, said Iris Hentze, a policy specialist at the National Conference of State Legislatures.

At the beginning of the pandemic, several states implemented temporary and emergency policies that waived or loosened requirements around licenses to beef up the medical workforce.

Ms. Hentze said some state lawmakers are considering making those changes permanent and discussed multistate compacts to recognize licenses from elsewhere in fields such as audiology, occupational therapy and psychology. There is already a multistate agreement for nurses. She said that Wyoming, South Dakota and Oklahoma have passed laws recognizing out-of-state licenses this year for all occupations.

Still, many businesses say that they can’t find enough licensed workers as the economy recovers from the pandemic downturn.

“I can’t hire someone to shampoo hair unless they first attend a for-profit school for 8 months" to earn a license, said Frank Zona, an owner of salons in eastern Massachusetts.

The Professional Beauty Association, an organization for cosmetologists, said consumers want the accountability that comes with a license. The group supports recognizing out-of-state licenses.

“Consumers have a reasonable expectation that the person applying a chemical or coming at them with a sharp object is trained," said Myra Irizarry Reddy, the association’s government affairs director. “You wouldn’t spend $200 to go into a salon to get services from someone who just decided one day that it looks fun."

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