Staff Columnist

Why do licensed shampooers in Iowa undergo more training than police officers?

Iowa's first-in-the-nation occupational licensing reform package is a good start at fixing the system

The rotunda is seen at the Iowa Capitol in Des Moines on Thursday, Dec. 19, 2019. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)
The rotunda is seen at the Iowa Capitol in Des Moines on Thursday, Dec. 19, 2019. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)

The need for occupational licensing reform in Iowa has never been more clear.

The dual crises of 2020 — the novel coronavirus pandemic and racist police violence, a long-standing crisis demanding new attention — have made it painfully obvious why Iowa must overhaul its overgrown restrictions on workers.

In theory, occupational licensing is meant to protect consumers by ensuring professionals in certain fields are qualified to perform potentially dangerous work. In practice, the system erects barriers for workers hoping to advance their careers by imposing burdensome fees and requirements.

The Iowa Legislature made good progress toward a workable licensing regime in the final days of the 2020 session. House File 2627 — which was approved by the House and Senate last week and is expected to be signed by Gov. Kim Reynolds — makes several important updates:

• Limits consideration of criminal offenses as grounds for denying, revoking or suspending some professional licenses

• Bars professional licensing boards from rejecting a license application due to an applicant’s incarceration status

• Allows workers from other states now residing in Iowa to more easily apply for licensure in Iowa

• Waives application fees for low-income applicants

Leaders of Americans for Prosperity, who championed the bill and advocate similar reforms in other states, said Iowa’s measure recognizing work experience in other states is the first such policy in the nation.

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Other groups supporting the legislation are as varied as the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the Iowa Chamber Alliance and the Iowa Rural Water Association. Several lobbyists representing medical professional groups also registered in support.

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The COVID-19 outbreak has shown that rigid occupational licensing laws could inhibit the health care system’s ability to respond to public health emergencies. When the virus reached the United States, an early step in many governors’ pandemic responses was to relax licensing requirements for medical professionals.

In March, Reynolds signed an executive order allowing people with out-of-state or lapsed licenses to help meet medical needs in the event of a skilled worker shortage. Most other states took similar steps, and the Trump administration endorsed the idea.

Ongoing mass protests against police brutality and racial injustice have underscored occupational licensing problems in interesting ways.

For one, many observers have pointed out inexplicable imbalances in training requirements for police officers compared with other professionals. Police officers in Iowa undergo some 600 hours of training over 16 weeks. Licensed barbers and shampooers have to have 2,100 work hours, and fire alarm installers must get five years of experience to get a license.

Training requirements for police officers should be enhanced. At the same time, though, requirements for other jobs — where workers don’t enjoy special legal protection when they kill fellow Americans — should be loosened.

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In addition to those gross disparities in education requirements, growing awareness of the justice system’s failures has people thinking about what happens when people are released from jails and prisons.

Under current law, a conviction can be a lifelong demerit preventing Americans from working in licensed professions. The occupational licensing system deprives people of their God-given right to work and do commerce long after they have paid for their crimes.

The measures in Iowa’s bill are all great ideas, but the it leaves many overbearing requirements in place. Iowa still requires licenses for more jobs than most other states, and requires higher fees and more training hours than average, according to a report from the Institute for Justice.

The current challenges facing our state and nation demand bolder action. It’s time to let Iowans work.

adam.sullivan@thegazette.com; (319) 339-3156

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