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3.21.22 – The Advocate 

Hair braiders, florists: Louisiana licenses a long list of jobs. Advocates want to change that.

Ashley N’Dakpri learned how to braid hair as a kid, growing up around her aunt’s New Orleans braiding business, Afro Touch. So she was well-positioned when she got the opportunity to work at the business a little over a decade ago, and later to take over operating the Gretna location, just as she saw natural hair styling gain a social media-fueled boom in popularity among Black women.

But N’Dakpri ran into a problem a few years ago. The state Board of Cosmetology told her she needed a special permit to do the braiding she and her family have done for years. That would require spending thousands of dollars attending a cosmetology school, few of which offered the required courses for braiding at the time. In court records, the Board of Cosmetology also said she’s not qualified to manage the location because she doesn’t have a cosmetology license.

“I started naturally picking up on this since I was a little girl,” N’Dakpri said. “Now you’re telling us we gotta go to school for a year to learn how to braid, and we have more knowledge on how to braid than the professors? It doesn’t make any sense.”

N’Dakpri soon got a call from the libertarian think tank Institute for Justice, which started representing her in an ongoing lawsuit against the cosmetology board, challenging the licensing requirements for braiding. N’Dakpri’s motion for summary judgment is set for a hearing Monday.

The board didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment for this story.

Her story is a piece of a larger battle that has played out for years at the Legislature — one that is coming to a head again this year.

Libertarian advocates, business groups, lawmakers and Gov. John Bel Edwards have tried repeatedly to make occupational licensing in Louisiana less burdensome. For hair braiders like N’Dakpri, as well as florists, barbers, alarm installers and a host of other occupations that are not dangerous, the state requires some combination of schooling, a test and a fee.

The list of low- to moderate-income jobs that require such licensing is longer in Louisiana than in almost any other state, according to the Institute of Justice. The group said in a 2017 report Louisiana had the sixth-most “widely and onerously licensed occupations” in the country, noting that Louisiana licensed 77 of the 102 lower-income occupations tracked by the organization.

The requirements, advocates argue, are unnecessary, stifle competition and make it harder on low-income people to improve their careers by starting a business.

The Pelican Institute, a libertarian think tank, is leading a bipartisan effort this year to simplify the rules.

Rep. Aimee Freeman, D-New Orleans, is sponsoring a bill this year that would overhaul how the Occupational Licensing Review Commission, which is chaired by Edwards’ administration, looks at licensing. The law would add legislators to the panel; make it easier for people to challenge occupational rules; and require occupational boards to justify their licenses and regulations, among other reforms.

Freeman said Louisiana’s licensing system makes it hard for would-be small business owners to chase their dreams.

“There’s just a lot of confusion about why you need to have these commissions,” she said. “In my heart of hearts, I want people to be successful in business and have the tools to be successful. When you have these commissions that don’t make any sense over-policing our entrepreneurs, you’re just holding back the growth of the economy, in my opinion.”

The long list of boards and commissions that hand out occupational licenses means there is an equally long list of people with a vested interest in keeping the system. And many of them argue there’s good reason to require people in certain jobs to be trained and adhere to regulations.

Agriculture Commissioner Mike Strain’s office oversees the Horticulture Commission, which licenses florists. He says the goal of licensing such jobs is to make sure consumers get a good product, and to eliminate the spread of plant pests. The agency has licensed about 1,900 florists per year since 2018.

“Over the years, retail florists have been in favor of keeping the licensing protocols, maintaining the professional level in which they operate,” said Jennifer Finley, a spokesperson for Strain. “One of the benefits has been that they assist in monitoring for pests and disease of flowers coming into the state.”

Rep. Julie Emerson, who tried unsuccessfully to repeal the retail florist license in 2018, noted the feds already inspect plants at the U.S. border.

At that hearing, florists testified that repealing their license would cheapen their craft, which they see as a form of art.

The Louisiana State Board of Interior Designers, another commission that has drawn scrutiny from advocates, requires designers to have a combination of six years of education and work experience, along with an exam, which costs money to take.

In its report about the profession, the board said the interior design work has a direct impact on public safety, and pointed out the job is different from that of an interior decorator. Interior designers design “regulated public spaces” like hospitals, hotels and nursing homes, it said.

“The average American spends 90% of their time per day in interior environments, therefore it is critical that interior designers create safe, accessible and functional interior spaces that conform with building codes and laws,” the report says.

Emerson, R-Carencro, has led a yearslong effort to change the state’s licensing rules in the Legislature. But she said it has been difficult to find support, while many people currently licensed to do a wide array of jobs marshaled opposition to the bills.

“You have very specific interest groups with licensing,” Emerson said. “Any time you do a bill, you have all these opponents come in and oppose it.”

Meagan Forbes, legislative counsel at the Institute for Justice, said the group has sued several times over various licensing requirements in Louisiana. But little has changed since its 2017 report, which found Louisiana’s licensing rules were out of step with the rest of the country. The organization says Louisiana is the only state to require retail florists to be licensed, one of three states to require interior designers to be licensed and one of five states to require all public school teacher’s aides to be licensed.

The Pelican Institute did a report in late 2021 that found the number of occupational licenses for low-income jobs grew faster in Louisiana than in any nearby state from 1993 to 2012. The average licensing fees amount to $360, and 22% of all Louisiana workers have licenses, both of which rank seventh in the U.S., according to the report.

The Pelican Institute is also pushing two other bills to loosen licensure laws.

One, by Rep. Thomas Pressly, R-Shreveport, would require boards to let people with a criminal conviction on their record know if they are eligible to be licensed. That way, people trying to restart their lives after being convicted don’t waste precious time and money studying and taking tests for a job they’ll never be licensed to perform.

“Louisiana, in my opinion, has over-regulating licensure, particularly of blue-collar jobs that other states don’t choose to license or at least doesn’t have as many stringent requirements,” he said. “I think it’s a priority for quite a few of us.”

Rep. Chuck Owen, R-Rosepine, has a bill that would make it easier for people licensed to work in other states to transfer their permit to Louisiana. Owen said Louisiana makes it too difficult for people to get to work, and that the state’s economy could use some loosening of the rules.

“Come here and hang a shingle and go to work,” Owen said.

In 2018, business groups and Gov. John Bel Edwards agreed on a law that would require the governor’s office to take a hard look at occupational licensing, with the aim of whittling down the list of jobs that require a fee and test.

But the law hasn’t produced the type of change advocates hoped. Edwards spokesperson Christina Stephens said the governor’s office was “not provided staff or funding to support the effort of reviewing and researching — or even tracking — every single set of licensing requirements in the state.”

She also pointed to the COVID pandemic and other disasters to explain why the administration hasn’t conducted the broad review mandated by the law. The law said the governor’s office had to review 20% of the state’s boards and agencies that hand out licenses for jobs each year, completing an exhaustive review within five years.

“The governor shares the concerns of many in the Legislature and the business community about licensure requirements, at times, being overly burdensome,” Stephens said. “He has and will continue to support efforts to ease these requirements where it is practical and reasonable.”