Mark Meranta/Courtesy of the Institute for Justice
Ashley-Roxanne N'Dakpri, manager of the Afro Touch hair braiding salon in Gretna, Louisiana, is suing the state's cosmetology board over its use of a state law to set licensing standards for hair braiders. Ms. N'Dakpri and two other plaintiffs claim a requirement for more than 500 hours of training is onerous and unnecessary.

500 hours of training to braid hair? Louisiana salon files suit.

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Across the country, state occupational licensing laws are being reexamined. Such laws, which affect about 1 in 4 American jobs, were devised as safeguards for consumers, but critics say they have ballooned into harmful restrictions on job-market competition and business opportunity. The result can be not just higher prices for consumers, but also career roadblocks for workers, with especially deep effects on minorities, immigrants, and people with criminal records.

The licensing laws are also inconsistent from state to state. In Gretna, Louisiana, the Afro Touch hair braiding salon is a plaintiff in a suit seeking to loosen or repeal Louisiana’s expensive requirement of 500 hours of training and a license in cosmetology. For Afro Touch, the rules mean not having enough staff to keep up with demand.

Why We Wrote This

Sometimes paths toward economic progress aren’t that complicated. A bipartisan effort is underway to streamline occupational licensing rules, so consumer protection doesn’t stifle work opportunities.

Only 19 people in the state are legally qualified to braid hair, while none of Louisiana’s border states – Arkansas, Mississippi, and Texas – require such licenses.

Ashley-Roxanne N’Dakpri, manager of Afro Touch, learned hair braiding as a child from her aunt, an immigrant from Ivory Coast. She says of her case: “I feel good about it, because I am going to fight for what’s right.”

If not for Lauryn Hill singing on the radio, the AfroTouch hair-braiding salon would be quieter than a knitting circle. On a weekday afternoon, the salon that recently filed a lawsuit against Louisiana only has two customers. 

Six of its swivel-chair workstations are shrouded in plastic covering. So when someone opens the door in this strip-mall location, manager Ashley-Roxanne N’Dakpri appears delighted to welcome a visitor. It’s an Amazon delivery man with a package of business supplies: dreadlocks.

Holding up the matted hair extensions, Ms. N’Dakpri explains how she’ll weave them into a customer’s hair. “It will look like they have been growing them for years,” says the smiling millennial.

Why We Wrote This

Sometimes paths toward economic progress aren’t that complicated. A bipartisan effort is underway to streamline occupational licensing rules, so consumer protection doesn’t stifle work opportunities.

Despite outward appearances, the Afro Touch salon can’t keep up with demand. Its customers are on a waiting list. But Louisiana has mandated such an expensive occupational license – 500 hours of training – that plaintiffs say only 19 people in the state are legally qualified to braid hair. Ms. N’Dakpri and two other hair braiders are suing the state in a bid to loosen or repeal the regulation.

Their litigation arrives at a time of nationwide reexamination of occupational licensing laws. Critics say such laws have ballooned beyond the role of consumer safeguards into harmful restrictions on job-market competition and opportunity in fields as diverse as tour guiding and making caskets.

The result can be not just higher prices for consumers, but also career roadblocks for workers, with especially deep effects on minorities, immigrants, and people with criminal records. 

The new efforts to relax regulations, rooted in the goal of fairness, span from court cases on specific occupations to broader reform efforts in state legislatures – a potentially significant shake-up in a nation where about 1 in 4 jobs currently require an occupational license or government approval. 

“In 2015, the Obama White House released a report on occupational licensing” and “it identified some of the barriers that it creates for different population groups,” says Suzanne Hultin, program director in the Employment, Labor & Retirement program at the bipartisan National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). “On the heels of that report, the U.S. Department of Labor announced [its willingness] to work with states on this issue. ... Then that trend continued in 2018. The Trump administration also put out some money to work on this. So it’s a bipartisan issue.”

“It’s like an art”

For Ms. N’Dakpri, it’s a personal issue. As a child, she learned African hair braiding from her aunt, Lynn Schofield, an immigrant from Ivory Coast. As an adult, she’s still braiding hair alongside Ms. Schofield, the owner of Afro Touch. Standing behind a seated customer, Ms. N’Dakpri braids a rope-like hair extension with fingers that move as fast as those of a stenographer. 

“It’s like an art. A lot of mathematics,” explains Ms. N’Dakpri. “People come with different types of hair, different size heads, different textures. So you have to be able to give them what they want without overdoing it.” 

The labor-intensive process, which does not include the use of dangerous substances such as chemicals, averages eight hours per customer. At one point, Ms. Schofield had the staff to handle the workload. She owned four salons and employed 20 hair braiders. That is, until the Louisiana Board of Cosmetology unilaterally decided in 2003 that hair braiders require a license in cosmetology. (The board has not responded to the Monitor’s requests for comment.) Of the 51 cosmetology schools in Louisiana, only one has an active course in alternative hair design, aka hair braiding. It’s a 4 1/2 hour drive from New Orleans. 

None of Louisiana’s border states – Arkansas, Mississippi, and Texas – require licenses for African hair braiding. That sort of disparity in licensing requirements across the states was noted in the 2015 Obama White House report

In July, Arizona and Pennsylvania responded by enacting universal licensure recognition so that those who’ve practiced occupations in other states can continue their practice, says Ms. Hultin of the NCSL. Utilizing a grant from the U.S. Department of Labor, the NCSL is helping to coordinate the Occupational Licensing Policy Learning Consortium. Sixteen states are participating in the project to examine common challenges of occupational licensing. 

But perhaps the most impactful pushback against occupational licensing laws stems from how they often discriminate against those with criminal records. Over the past three years, 20 states have reformed regulations that stipulated that “good moral character” is a requisite to be awarded occupational licenses.

Credit the burgeoning movement for criminal justice reform. 

“There’s at least some overlap across the right and the left on recognizing that it just doesn’t make sense to keep people with records from being able to access careers and good jobs,” says Beth Avery, senior staff attorney for the National Employment Law Project, a think tank that advocates for liberal labor and employment legislation. 

Recidivism and jobs

Those sorts of regulations particularly affect former felons. People who learned a skilled trade while incarcerated may be prohibited from practicing it after release from prison. 

“There’s been so many studies that have correlated recidivism rates to employment rates,” says Kimberly Crawford-Buddin, policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan. “The reason that the ACLU has dug so hard into the issue of criminal records and occupational licensing is because of the racial impact that it has,” given the nation’s currently high rates of incarceration for black men. 

The Obama White House report also identified immigrants as one of the populations most adversely affected by occupational licensing laws. That’s true in the case of Afro Touch. Many of its onetime employees were legal immigrants from Africa who were still learning English – an additional barrier to attending cosmetology school. Ms. N’Dakpri says such training was also superfluous.

“Because they come from Africa, they already know how to braid!” she says.

The Institute for Justice (IJ), a libertarian legal advocacy group that is representing the hair braiders in the Louisiana lawsuit, has mounted multiple challenges to occupational licensing laws since 1991. Occupational licensing laws often result from trade associations lobbying to curb new competitors from entering the profession, says Lee McGrath, senior legislative counsel of IJ. Sometimes those groups directly oversee the licensing process. In Louisiana, the cosmetology board includes owners of cosmetology schools – including one that teaches hair braiding. 

A proper role for licensing

Jack Gillis, executive director of the Consumer Federation of America, believes governmental licensing agencies are still key to consumer protections but agrees that they need to be independent from industry influence.

“The good about licensing laws for the various services that they cover is that they provide some modicum of information about the quality of the service provider to consumers,” says Mr. Gillis. “The real argument against licensing is that it’s inconsistent. It is often not enforced. And the requirements may not necessarily identify the good players. So if those three criteria are met then licensing can be a great thing.” 

Mr. McGrath of IJ sees a greater role for rating agencies and private certification as an alternative to governmental licensing laws. Does a lactation consultant group in Georgia really need a license in an age when consumer word of mouth travels faster over the internet?

More immediately, IJ believes economic liberty helps consumers. It has represented teeth-cleaning and teeth-whitening entrepreneurs who’ve challenged the idea that only licensed dentists can oversee such procedures. Similarly, some reform advocates say high costs in medicine could be curbed partly by allowing nurses to perform some regular tasks that only licensed doctors are permitted to do. 

Ms. N’Dakpri is heartened by IJ’s recent victories, but she’s taking on a state that still licenses florists and interior designers. For now, her case is pending. On Monday, a judge denied a motion by the Louisiana Board of Cosmetology to dismiss the case. 

“I feel good about it,” says the hair braider, who typically weaves hair with her eyes closed, a serene smile on her face. “Because I am going to fight for what’s right.”

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