More than 40 million Americans — 24 percent of the U.S. labor force — are unemployed and wondering when they can return to work. As states permit businesses to safely reopen and hospitals to resume elective surgeries, furloughed and laid-off workers can hopefully return to their jobs. However, some workers were locked out of opportunities before COVID-19 hit and will struggle to secure work after mandated closures are lifted.
Tanesha Bannister is now an unemployed grandmother and caregiver to her quadriplegic son. Up until the Wuhan virus outbreak, she had been employed as a personal care assistant working with the elderly and those with autoimmune issues. Now, she’s awaiting word from her employer about when she can return to work. She hopes it’s soon.
Bannister is still upbeat despite the coronavirus crisis. Thanks to bipartisan criminal justice efforts, the 44-year-old was released early from federal prison last year after serving 16 years of a 23-year sentence — which had once been reduced from a life sentence — for a drug conspiracy charge. During her incarceration, she earned her GED, completed more than 100 classes on everything from education to psychology, and earned a cosmetology license in Florida.
In addition to the uncertainty of her personal care work, she is unable to use her license to do hair because her new home state of South Carolina does not recognize her Florida license.
Bannister is not alone. Many other workers who obtain occupational licenses in one state are prohibited from operating or setting up shop if they have to move. The issue is particularly acute for people who move frequently, such as military spouses.
Not recognizing out-of-state licenses is just one harmful aspect of occupational licensing. Often, the requirements themselves for education, training, and fees can be so costly and time-consuming, they create unnecessary burdens and insurmountable obstacles. In addition, some states impose blanket exclusions for people with criminal convictions, regardless of how long ago the offense occurred or whether it is related to the job for which a person seeks a license.
Certainly, some licenses are necessary to protect the health and safety of both workers and consumers. Doctors hold someone else’s health and life in their hands, so it’s reasonable they are licensed, but do florists need certification to arrange flowers?
The number of jobs requiring licenses has ballooned from just 5 percent of the workforce in the 1950s to nearly 30 percent today. Often, license requirements are arbitrary and unconnected to any health or safety rationale. Instead, they serve to protect licensed businesses and block new competition from entering the market.
The outcome of this overregulation is that too often entrepreneurs who are skilled, experienced, and even educated in certain fields are barred from practicing because they haven’t jumped through their state’s particular hoops.
For example, Donna Harris, a Mississippi occupational therapist and fitness trainer was sent a cease-and-desist letter from the state, threatening her with six months in prison for offering her clients a wellness program that included nutritional advice.
Despite her degree in nutrition, Harris is not a licensed dietician and, therefore, is not permitted to help people eat healthier. As over 40 percent of U.S. adults are obese, and we now know that severe obesity puts Americans at greater risk for COVID-19, we need more, not fewer, voices promoting healthy eating.
Taken together, one economic model finds that occupational licensing restrictions reduce the number of jobs available by up to 2.85 million nationwide. At a time of nearly unprecedented unemployment, policymakers should prioritize removing these obstacles to work.
A silver lining during this COVID-19 crisis may be that the need for emergency personnel has pushed states to implement some overdue reforms.
The shortage of medical professionals in hard-hit states such as New York and New Jersey prompted states to temporarily suspend occupational licensing restrictions — something commonly done in response to natural disasters — including recognizing out-of-state licensed health practitioners, activating the licenses of retired doctors, granting emergency licenses to medical residents and nursing students or allowing them to practice unlicensed, allowing students and nurse practitioners to provide a broader scope of care, and expanding access to telehealth.
However, almost all of these reforms are temporary. Is the help offered by nurses who traveled from across the country to overwhelmed hospitals in New York only acceptable during a crisis?
States have a chance to make permanent changes to their healthcare-related licensing regulations, but they shouldn’t stop there. They should also examine all the other requirements for occupations in their states and eliminate or scale back those that only limit opportunity or create barriers for competition in the market.
By including occupational licensing reforms among their reopening strategies, states can strengthen their workforces during this time of crisis and beyond.
Patrice Lee Onwuka is a senior policy analyst at the Independent Women’s Forum.