Lower Barriers to Employment to Give Workers a Fighting Chance

People make mistakes; sometimes life-altering ones that harm the entire community.  But when they seek to get their life back on track and pay their debt to society, we should help them up, not push them back down.

That’s why the Commonwealth Foundation stood with Rep. Andrew Lewis and Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta in introducing the Fighting Chance Act.  Modeled after successful legislation in Virginia, the Fighting Chance Act would reduce regulations around occupational licensing that create barriers to employment—particularly for low-income families and those formerly incarcerated who want to reenter the workforce.

Nearly one in five Pennsylvanians needs a license just to work. Our state bureaucracy mandates and regulates licenses for more than 250 occupations.

While licensing is intended to protect public safety, the requirements often create unnecessary restrictions and regulations on who can work, without improving safety or quality.

In many cases, the burden is excessive. For instance, becoming a barber or cosmetologist requires eight times the amount of training it takes to become an Emergency Medical Technician. Many, including Gov. Wolf, question whether state government really needs to license professionals like hair braiders, rental listing referral agents, or cemetery salespeople. These regulatory burdens do little to protect public safety.

A recent Institute for Justice report, At What Cost?, estimates that Pennsylvania loses 90,000 jobs each year due to the burdens of occupational licensing. 

This burden falls most squarely on low-income individuals, those who can’t afford thousands of hours of training or lawyers to help them navigate the bureaucratic regime.

The licensing maze hinders ex-offenders trying to get back on their feet. Drug convictions carry with them a ten-year ban on any occupational license, and an arbitrary requirement that licensees have “good moral character”—subject of a lawsuit in Pennsylvania—prevents individuals with criminal records from working as cosmetologists, estheticians, nail technicians, and natural hair braiders.

These policies undermine the ability of formerly incarcerated persons—among whom the unemployment rate is approximately 27 percent—to reenter the workforce.

The unfortunate result? More individuals wind up back in prison. States with higher occupational licensing burdens have seen greater recidivism than those with lower burdens, according to a study by Stephen Slivinski. Regulatory barriers to employment make it much more difficult for former inmates to become productive members of society.

The Fighting Chance Bill will help more of our neighbors who leave prison to reenter the workforce, and help more families prosper. It’s time to lower their barriers to employment and create more opportunities for thriving businesses.