July 2 2014

Braiding: When Small Businesses Get Tied in Knots by State Licensing Authorities

Abby Schachter

“For me, braiding hair is an intimate thing,” actress Lupito Nyong’o explains to Vogue.com. “It's getting up close and personal, and I like to do it for people that I know and love and trust.” The Oscar winner exposed her hidden talent by employing the braiding techniques taught to her by her aunt, on several friends. Nyong’o told how as an undergraduate at Hampshire College, she had thought to braid as a “side hustle” but ultimately decided against charging her friends for the service.

Good thinking on Ms. Nyong’o’s part since the business of African braiding is, like too many others, an entrepreneurial, small business enterprise where too often, unfortunately government bureaucrats and state regulators are killing jobs and hurting (mostly) women workers.

Like Ms. Nyong’o, Jestina Clayton started an African hair-braiding business while she was in college in Utah. When she first approached the state to ask whether she needed a license to braid hair, she was told no since she was not using any chemicals for dyeing or cutting any hair. But two years later that all changed and, according to the Institute for Justice:

[She] received an anonymous threat to report her to the cosmetology board for braiding without a license.  This time when Jestina asked the State if she needed a cosmetology license to just braid hair she was told yes, she did need that license.

To get a Utah cosmetology license Jestina would have to spend thousands of dollars on 2,000 hours of government-mandated cosmetology training. …. Worse yet, as the State admitted, these 2,000 hours had little, if anything, to do with African hair braiding.

 With IJ’s help she fought the law and won as a federal judge struck down the hair braiding law as constitutional. And with the ruling, Justina could return to work.

Utah isn’t the only place where hair braiders have had to fight burdensome licensing, however. In Illinois,licensing for braiders can cost around $10,000. Illinois braiders organized against cosmetology standards for braiding licenses. And in Missouri, braiders are challenging licensing regulations as well. Licensing can cost as much as $16,000.

Like Jestina Clayton these Illinois and Missouri braiders are receiving legal help from the Institute for Justice. “When it’s easier to become an emergency medical technician than a cosmetologist, there’s something wrong,” IJ lawyer Greg Reed said. Salamata Sylla’s story was different. She established a hair braiding business after coming to the U.S. from Senegal as a teenager.  After being harassed by state licensing officials, Sylla, who maintained that she did not need a license, announced that she intended to file a suit. This is what happened:

[T]he day before it was filed she got a call from the Department of Licensing.

"To tell me that I could do whatever I want. That it was over, that it was a big mistake. But it's a little too late. I don't think it's right after you harass a person for a whole year. All of a sudden you heard about a lawsuit and you want to call and apologize and say you can do whatever you want. So basically they'll just have to deal with that."

What they have to deal with is a lawsuit. Salamata is not asking for any money, what she wants is an actual law that states that she, and all other hair braiders, don't have to go to cosmetology school. It's something that Institute For Justice attorney, Paul Avelar, says was already established, but just magically disappeared.

"Way back in 2005, the Department of Licensing, in response to an earlier lawsuit that we had against them, said that natural hair braiding wasn't the practice of cosmetology because it didn't use things like chemicals or hair cutting or heat or anything like that," said Paul.

That's the thing. Cosmetology school doesn't actually teach braiding, something that Salamata says keeps many west African immigrant woman afloat in this country.

African hair braiding is just like many other small, independent businesses that get hassled by established businesses. Stringent licensing for businesses that shouldn’t require licensing is attractive to established operations that want to kill the competition.

 

 

 

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