OP-ED: The time for occupational licensing reform is now

By Sen. John DiSanto, Sen. Judy Schwank, Rep. Sheryl Delozier and Rep. Jordan Harris

In Pennsylvania’s prisons, we offer a number of rehabilitative and job training programs to ensure that incarcerated individuals are equipped with the skills they need to obtain employment when they’re released.

One such program offered is a barber training program: inmates are able to log hours and study for the state licensing exam. But unfortunately, due to Pennsylvania’s confusing occupational licensing laws, individuals can be denied a barber license—even after they complete all of the required training and pass the exam—solely due to their criminal history, even if the conviction is completely unrelated to the occupation.

These vague and overbroad restrictions exist for many occupations that require a license in Pennsylvania. For far too long, Pennsylvanians who have made mistakes—even those that are decades old—are barred from obtaining occupational licenses, thus lowering their chances of gaining meaningful employment and economic prospects over the long-term.

That’s why, as colleagues from both sides of the aisle, we’ve come together to introduce Senate Bill 637 and House Bill 1477, legislation that will prevent licensing boards from denying or revoking an occupational license solely based on an individual’s criminal history, unless the conviction is directly related to the occupation for which the license is sought. Even then, our bills require boards consider remediating factors, such as employment history and rehabilitation, before denying a license.

Further, our bills allow individuals the opportunity to petition a board to find out if their criminal history is disqualifying from licensure before they go through the lengthy and costly process of going to school or obtaining the requisite training for the particular profession.

While we believe that committing certain crimes should bar you from obtaining certain licenses, there’s no public safety reason to prevent a person with a non-violent felony record from becoming a barber, massage therapist, or electrician, for example, as long as their conviction is unrelated to the occupation they’re seeking a license for.

Senate Bill 637 and House Bill 1477 will change this routine practice, ensuring that occupational licenses may only be withheld from those with a conviction directly related to the occupation sought, while empowering boards to conduct individualized reviews and consider key factors, including the nature of the offense, the amount of time that has passed since conviction, and other critical considerations. Simply put – if you’ve done your time and have the proper skills and training, then you deserve a shot at a license. And, with these bills, you’ll get it.

We’ve heard from business leaders and chamber groups who tell us over and over again that there’s a dearth of skilled labor in this state, and they’re having trouble finding candidates to fill job positions. So why should we continue to permit the state to serve as a barrier to individuals who are willing and able to work simply because of their past mistakes? The reforms contained in our bills will not only reduce recidivism, but they’ll make our economy stronger as well.

When it comes to public safety, studies have shown that states with the most burdensome occupational licensing laws averaged a 9 percent increase in their new-crime recidivism rate, while states with the lowest occupational licensing burdens saw a 4.2 percent decline in their average new-crime recidivism rate. By reducing the burden our occupational licensing laws have on those with criminal records, we will strengthen our communities by lowering crime rates as well.

And we’re not alone: both red and blue states across the country have enacted reforms similar to those in our bills: from Tennessee to Illinois, Nebraska to Colorado, and even as recently as a few weeks ago, Oklahoma, states have removed obstacles to employment for those with criminal records by getting the government out of the way and opening up a new, skilled talent pool for employers to work with.

It’s time for Pennsylvania to do the same.