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Wednesday, April 15, 2020 Leer en Español

To Help Americans Suffering During the COVID-19 Pandemic, Policymakers Need to Reduce Barriers to Employment ASAP

Allowing Americans to deploy their knowledge and skills to innovate and provide essential services must take priority over the concerns of burdensome regulatory boards.

Image Credit: Flickr-Maryland GovPics | CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/)

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to sweep across the United States, local leaders have issued executive orders and guidelines to medical licensing boards designed to grant temporary or expedited licenses to health care professionals. For example, Governor Charlie Baker of Massachusetts ordered various state agencies to expedite approvals of physician licenses for recent retirees and out-of-state providers. In Maine, Governor Janet Mills directed regulatory agencies to automatically renew medical licenses and remove reinstatement fees.

Occupational Licensing Reform 

While these measures may be temporary, the COVID-19 crisis demonstrates the significant barriers to employment and public safety that can limit socio-economic mobility and constrain personal freedoms. Specifically, now is the time for states to reform occupational licensing standards in order to support small business and provide economic opportunities for the recently unemployed and disenfranchised.

A staggering 1,100 jobs in the US require some form of professional license, and these careers range from specialized medical and legal professionals all the way to wig sellers and florists. Indeed, regulatory boards exercise significant control over the economic activity of millions of Americans, oftentimes levying fees and exams upon anyone looking to change careers or launch a small business. For example, New Jersey requires wig and weave sellers to obtain a cosmetology license to legally sell their products, despite a lack of styling and hygiene concerns when purchasing a packaged weave product. Further, the New Jersey Board of Cosmetology requires 1,200 hours of training to grant a cosmetology certificate, which is a significant barrier to entry for small business owners.

Louisiana even regulates florists through a Horticulture Commission that is composed of unelected floral business owners with an incentive to limit competition. This Commission can impose exams, inspections, and fees upon a variety of businesses working with flowers under the guise of consumer protection. Ask yourself, is flower selling really a dangerous operation worthy of regulation? Indeed, institutions such as the Horticulture Commission could potentially limit recently laid off Americans’ ability to work, as Louisiana residents might not be able to sell flowers grown on private property without the proper approval.

The changing economic landscape will likely prompt Americans to move to new cities and states in search of opportunity, but burdensome licensing policies disincentivize economic mobility. For instance, in the healthcare sector occupational licensing challenges may even inhibit the ability of local communities to combat the spread of the COVID-19. Consider the California Board of Registered Nursing, which mandates that all registered nurses working in California must have completed all of California’s nursing educational requirements.

Limited Economic Opportunity

California’s policy means that even qualified medical professionals with degrees from universities in Oregon and Nevada would not be able to legally cross over the border and assist with medical triage in affected regions of California. Obviously the public has a vested interest in supporting safe and trained healthcare providers, but the COVID-19 situation reveals the need for occupational licensing reciprocity across state lines. Indeed, states such as Arizona are leading the charge on occupational licensing reform, as the Arizona State Legislature passed legislation in 2019 recognizing a variety of out of state professional licenses. Ohio policymakers are currently debating similar legislation which could bring new residents and jobs to the state, especially in the aftermath of the COVID-19’s economic impact.

Furthermore, unnecessary occupational licensing schemes severely limit the economic opportunities of impoverished Americans and anyone with a criminal conviction. Specifically, states such as Florida impose 15-year waiting periods on certain felons before they are even able to apply for certain licenses. This means that inmates who learn skilled trades such as hair cutting can not pursue continuing education or cosmetology employment for years after their release, relegating many skilled workers to lower-paying jobs. As the COVID-19 pandemic leads to additional early prison release policies, policymakers should seize the opportunity to allow prisoners to deploy their skills without facing additional licensing hardships.

With nearly 17 million Americans filing for unemployment since mid-March, the COVID-19 pandemic clearly threatens the livelihood and careers of many Americans. Policymakers should reduce impediments for employment and free exchange by relaxing occupational licensing requirements and creating reciprocity across state lines. Allowing Americans to deploy their knowledge and skills to innovate and provide essential services must take priority over the concerns of burdensome regulatory boards.


  • Brogan Feeley is a recent graduate of Boston College and currently serves as a Jesuit Volunteer in Nashville, Tennessee