Aicheria Bell and Achan Agit are finally free to braid hair without the government’s permission.
The two women, both immigrants from west Africa, sued the state of Iowa last year over licensing rules that required 2,100 hours of costly cosmetology training before they could be licensed by the state to braid hair.
Victory came last week, not from the courts, but from the state legislature and Republican Gov. Terry Branstad.
As part of the state budget passed last week, lawmakers in the Hawkeye State voted to exempt natural hairbraiding from the state’s cosmetology licensing requirements. Previously, anyone who wanted to make money by braiding hair in Iowa was required to take 2,100 hours of training – 17 times more than is required to become an EMT – in skills such as applying makeup and cutting hair, and pay thousands of dollars to obtain a license.
The budget bill removed the licensing requirements for hairbraiders, but included a provision giving the state Department of Public Health the ability to write new regulations and required hairbraiders to take an annual training course.
A day after the budget bill reached his desk, though, Branstad struck that detail from the bill with a line-item veto.
“These requirements are unnecessary,” Branstad wrote in his veto message to the legislature.
“Licensing and regulations should only be mandated when necessary to serve public health or safety,” he added. “Natural hairbraiding does not require government mandates, regulations or licensing.”
That’s great news for Bell and Agit, who were in danger of losing their businesses for violating the state’s licensing law. As Watchdog has previously reported, the cosmetology training required under the old rules could cost as much as $22,000 in tuition to state-approved cosmetology schools and had little, if anything, to do with natural hairbraiding, a technique long passed-down by west African women.
The state regulations also require a high school degree or GED, which was a clear barrier for Agit, who moved to the U.S. from Sudan in 2004 but has been braiding hair since she was 5.
Bell and Agit sued the state with the help of the Institute for Justice, a libertarian law firm that had already won similar lawsuits against hairbraiding licensing schemes in Arizona, Utah, Washington and elsewhere.
“We are excited the governor has taken a stand against unnecessary occupational licensing in Iowa and is committed to protecting the right to earn a living moving forward,” Meagan Forbes, an attorney with IJ, told Watchdog this week.
The lawsuit will likely be dropped unless the state legislature overrides Branstad’s veto, Forbes said.
If the legislature does not override the veto by July 1, the new law will go into effect and Bell and Agit will be able to declare victory.
“Braiding is a skill I already have. It’s a way to keep my culture alive, and it has helped me provide for my family,” Bell told Watchdog when we first covered her case last year. “I just want the right to earn a living and not feel like I’m a criminal.”
Many other workers in Iowa won’t be so lucky, though.
According to a report released by the Obama administration earlier this year, government-issued permission slips are required for 33 percent of all jobs in Iowa. That’s the highest percentage in any state in the nation.
The White House report, authored jointly with the U.S. Treasury and the U.S. Department of Labor, urged state and local governments to loosen licensing requirements and cut red tape to open employment opportunities. The report noted that the number of jobs requiring an occupational license has grown five-fold since the 1950s and argued that licensing schemes disproportionately affect the poor, who are probably less likely to spend time and money on licenses.
They also force otherwise law-abiding citizens to hide their businesses in the shadows.
“By one estimate, licensing restrictions cost millions of jobs nationwide and raise consumer expenses by over one hundred billion dollars,” the White House concluded.