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Florida’s occupational licensing laws need a makeover | Opinion

Miami Herald - 12/8/2023

As Floridians head home for the holidays, they might find it hard to look their best. The state makes it exceptionally difficult for people to become a barber or cosmetologist.

The Florida Senate is now considering Senate Bill 42 (alongside Florida House Bill 133), which would reduce burdensome regulations for people trying to become barbers and cosmetologists. Importantly, for those with criminal records, the bills would limit the time frame in which applicants for barber and cosmetologist licenses could be denied to three years, and leave the time limit at five years for other occupations, including contractors and occupations for which agencies recognize vocational training or industry certification that took place in prisons.

This shorter time limit would be an improvement over the current laws for aspiring barbers and cosmetologists. A more general reform could apply this type of time limit to all licensed occupations in Florida, instead of allowing licensing boards to deny applicants no matter when their criminal offense took place.

SB 42 would also require licensing boards to recognize educational program credits offered to inmates in prison. Aspiring barbers and cosmetologists need to complete nearly half a year of training before they can apply for the license in Florida — far more than would-be EMTs or police officers — and many aspiring workers could complete licensing educational credits and training while they are incarcerated. It is a strange world in which the state spends money on training people in prisons for occupations that they are then prevented from becoming licensed in once they leave prison.

Resolving the mismatch between training and workforce access would reduce unemployment among people with a criminal record while also safely increasing the number of services available to customers. Even with a three-year gap between the last offense and the license, recognizing these credits would mean that applicants do not have to pay for expensive barber and cosmetology schools.

Florida is one of the most burdensome states in the country for its occupational licensing laws, and for those trying to start over on the American dream, it can be even harder. Florida stacks the deck against people with a criminal history, even if the offense was an isolated incident or happened a long time ago.

Without the required occupational license, aspiring workers cannot legally work in dozens of blue-collar occupations without also facing a criminal penalty or fine, leading to a perverse world in which trying to work sends people back to prison. That means it can be almost impossible for people to start over and be productive members of Florida society.

Of course, Florida should still protect public safety when considering collateral consequence reforms. Economics research has found that higher licensing barriers are associated with higher recidivism, as workforce entry barriers make it harder for people to support themselves and their families. Collateral consequences that specifically bar people with criminal records from working in licensed occupations double-down on punishment instead of supporting economic freedom and prosperity. Previous reductions to licensing burdens passed in 2020 also demonstrate that reforms do not lead to disastrous public safety crises.

This is a second, narrower attempt to patch a broken system, and the Florida Senate and House should be commended for doing what they can. A previous set of bills last session (SB 1124 and HB 1443) would have reformed the system more entirely. Failing that, Florida can still cut unnecessary regulations for people trying to reintegrate into society and be productive in their chosen line of work.

In the season of forgiveness, Florida should take the first step forward by reducing burdens for aspiring workers once again.

Darwyyn Deyo is an associate professor of economics at San José State University, a senior research fellow with the Knee Regulatory Research Center at West Virginia University, and a public voices fellow of The OpEd Project.

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