To many, it’s common sense that occupational licenses be required to practice some highly technical professions—accounting, engineering, home inspection and the like. But when it comes to seemingly innocuous professions like floristry, hair braiding and even casket making, are stringent licensing requirements really all that necessary?

According to the Institute for Justice, a nonprofit litigation firm that has long studied the effects of occupational licensing, Louisiana has the sixth most burdensome licensing requirements in the nation.

IJ’s research has shown that nearly one in five workers in Louisiana must attain a license before being permitted to work, and that the average license for low- and moderate-income jobs in the state requires 175 days of education and experience.

While some of those requirements may be justified, IJ holds the position that many are unduly onerous, especially in cases where occupational licenses have not been shown to improve service quality or protect the public from harm. It’s for this reason that Louisiana’s licensing boards have been a frequent target of the institute’s litigation.

“Louisiana burdens its residents quite a bit with occupational licensing,” says Betsy Sanz, an IJ attorney who has been involved in a number of efforts to reform licensing requirements in Louisiana. “It just makes it harder for people to work and earn an honest living.”

Sanz says many occupational licensing requirements in Louisiana disproportionately burden low-income workers.

“These are working people, and acquiring these licenses can be costly,” Sanz says. “The process of acquiring a license has a bigger impact when you have less resources. Where there is no real risk to public health and safety, we don’t think people should have to spend money on schooling and take time out of their lives where they can’t earn money.”

In 2022, some progress was made when then-Gov. John Bel Edwards signed the Right to Earn a Living Act into law. The legislation requires occupational licensing boards to justify their requirements and gives Louisiana residents the ability to challenge those requirements in court.

And in May, even more progress was made when Gov. Jeff Landry signed the Welcome Home Act, which recognizes out-of-state occupational licenses for workers relocating to Louisiana. So long as applicants have held an out-of-state license at a similar scope-of-practice for at least one year, are in good standing and have met the testing or training requirements of the state they were initially licensed in, they are eligible to receive a license to work in Louisiana. It should be noted, however, that the Welcome Home Act does nothing to ease licensing requirements for workers who already reside in Louisiana.

In recent years, legislators have also passed a law requiring the governor’s office to review one-fifth of Louisiana’s occupational licensing requirements each year; repealed a law that allowed the state to revoke or suspend licenses over unpaid student loans; and eliminated licensing barriers for workers with criminal records.

“It looks to me like there’s an appetite in the Louisiana Legislature to make it easier for people to work,” Sanz says. “IJ is totally behind that kind of sentiment.”

Despite the recent developments, many proponents of occupational licensing reform argue that more needs to be done to make it easier for Louisianans to earn a living—especially at a time when many in the state are struggling to make ends meet as is.

MOVING FORWARD: In May, Louisiana made progress toward easing licensing requirements when Gov. Jeff Landry signed the Welcome Home Act, which recognizes out-of-state occupational licenses for workers relocating to Louisiana. (The Associated Press)

‘IT WASN’T ADDING UP’

One lawsuit that IJ and Sanz are currently involved with—N’Dakpri v. Louisiana State Board of Cosmetology—takes aim at Louisiana’s occupational licensing requirements for natural hair braiders.

Ashley N’Dakpri, owner of Afro Touch Hair Braiding in Gretna, has been braiding hair since she was a small child, just as many women with African heritage have. For many years, she and her family operated Afro Touch without issue.

Then, in 2019, the Louisiana State Board of Cosmetology sent a new inspector to Afro Touch. While the salon was licensed, some of its braiders—including N’Dakpri herself—were not. The inspector told N’Dakpri and her employees that they would need to close the salon until they received cosmetology licenses—something that would require at least 500 hours of training and cost thousands of dollars. IJ’s research has shown that half of cosmetologists make less than $19,680 per year.

“A lot of our stylists started getting scared,” N’Dakpri says. “How would we be able to keep our business open and how would our stylists be able to pay their bills if they were paying to go to school to learn a skill they already knew how to do? It wasn’t adding up.”

LEGAL CHALLENGE: The Louisiana State Board of Cosmetology has maintained that its licensing requirements for those who braid hair are justified because unlicensed practitioners present a risk to public safety. (iStock)

With IJ’s help, N’Dakpri and her aunt, Afro Touch founder Lynn Schofield, filed a lawsuit in state court to challenge the Louisiana State Board of Cosmetology’s licensing requirements for hair braiders.

A judge dismissed the case in July 2023, and an appellate court affirmed that decision in June. IJ has expressed its intent to appeal the decision to the Louisiana Supreme Court.

The Louisiana State Board of Cosmetology has maintained that its licensing requirements are justified because unlicensed hair braiders present a risk to public safety—an argument that N’Dakpri finds baseless.

“Hair braiding is not a dangerous skill,” N’Dakpri says. “I’m OK with people going to cosmetology school, but I don’t think it should be mandatory. I don’t think there should be rules and regulations that get in the way of young women becoming entrepreneurs and doing what they love to do.”

Sanz agrees with N’Dakpri that there are no dangers inherent to the act of braiding hair.

“None of Louisiana’s neighboring states even regulate hair braiding,” Sanz says. “If you have the skill, you can start earning money without a license. Louisiana requires a person to go through full-time schooling and pass an exam in order to do something that has been proven to be very safe and that people have done for generations.”

A point that Sanz says should not be lost in the conversation surrounding occupational licensing in Louisiana is that the state’s licensing boards tend to comprise industry players who are already established in the industries they regulate. In other words, many licensing boards possess the power to make it more difficult for new players to even enter the game, stifling competition to the benefit of their own pocketbooks.

“The more open the marketplace is to people who are unlicensed, the more competition there is for incumbent players,” Sanz says. “The folks who promulgate regulations often have at least some incentive to do so.”

The incentive in the case of the Louisiana State Board of Cosmetology, Sanz says, stems from the fact that the board is made up of cosmetology schools that directly profit from its schooling requirements. At press time, the Louisiana State Board of Cosmetology had not responded to requests for comment other than to share a copy of the appellate court’s June decision.