Occupational licensing exists as a mechanism for government to promote public health and safety by requiring workers to meet specific requirements before legally practicing in occupations that pose risks to consumers and the general public. Licensing can be useful when imposed on occupations that do pose legitimate threats to the public, but over time, these rules have been used to freeze out competition in occupations where threats to the public simply do not exist.
Rates of occupational licensing have grown tremendously, and many states – including Maine – now license a number of professions that pose no threat to the public. In the 1950s, only five percent of US occupations were subject to licensing requirements. Today, nearly one-third of the American workforce requires a license to earn a living.
Fortunately, occupational licensing is not a left vs. right issue; the overwhelming consensus of scholarly research is that, unless imposed with extraordinary parsimony and care, occupational licensing deters people from entering regulated professions, raises prices for goods and services and does little to enhance public safety. A 2015 study prepared by the Obama Administration’s Department of the Treasury, Council of Economic Advisors, and Department of Labor found that, “while licensing can bring benefits, current systems of licensure can also place burdens on workers, employers, and consumers, and too often are inconsistent, inefficient, and arbitrary.”
To illustrate the arbitrary nature of occupational licensing rules, consider that a barber in New England could pay as much as $164 to obtain a license in Massachusetts, but the same license costs only $41 in Maine. The Massachusetts license requires 779 days of education and experience, but in New Hampshire it takes only 187. In Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont, you’ll also need to pass three exams to earn this license, but in Connecticut you’re only required to pass one.
Not only are some rules completely arbitrary, the current system of licensure in Maine begs the question of how our rules can be justified from the perspective of promoting public health and safety. To be a log scaler in Maine (someone who measures and estimates the value of logs) you must first acquire 730 days of relevant experience before being issued a license. Emergency Medical Technicians, whose work undoubtedly impacts the health and safety of the general public, require just 26 days of relevant experience to earn a license.
Maine is one of just two states (including Idaho) that licenses log scalers. Maine licenses at least seven occupations that are licensed in seven or fewer states, including arborists, animal control officers, dietetic technicians, electrical helpers, funeral attendants, log scalers and packagers.
On top of arbitrary rules and regulations imposed on entire industries that do not warrant regulation, licensing boards in Maine have adopted rules that make it virtually impossible for some people to enter a profession. For example, many licensing boards in Maine employ “good character” rules which allow members of a licensing board (of which many hold a license in the regulated profession) to determine whether someone has the moral character fitting to be granted a license.
As a result, boards abuse their power to prevent recovering felons from entering licensed occupations, which only makes matters worse for individuals seeking a fresh start and an avenue to steady employment. In addition, some licensing boards in Maine will not grant reciprocal licenses to people from other states unless the education and experience requirements imposed to obtain a license in their home state are equivalent to the requirements imposed in Maine.
This means someone with as little as a single hour of less experience could not immediately be granted a reciprocal license in Maine; whatever the disparity between the rules imposed in their home state and Maine, these workers would be required to make up the difference in order to earn a license to work.
According to the Institute for Justice, Maine licenses 45 out of 102 low- to moderate-income professions, including makeup artists, funeral attendants, teachers, auctioneers and sign language interpreters, among many others. Those seeking to enter these occupations must, on average, pay $181 in fees, devote 298 days to training, and pass one exam just to obtain a license to work in Maine.
These costs are far too high for individuals to bear in a state that desperately needs all the help it can get to fill current job openings and provide much needed services in underserved areas.
This week, lawmakers on the Innovation, Development, Economic Advancement and Business Committee held a public hearing on LD 532, sponsored by Rep. Victoria Morales, a bill that would require licensing and certification boards governed under Title 32 to undertake a review of the rules and requirements currently imposed and survey active licensees to research barriers to obtaining licensure.
This is a necessary first step Maine must take to enact major occupational licensing reform. It’s high time we protected the right to earn a living in this state, which will only be accomplished when we have a full accounting of every barrier that stands in our way.