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Hair braiders tangle with Iowa in lawsuit challenging ‘burdensome and arbitrary’ regulations

By   /   October 29, 2015  /   News  /   No Comments

Aicheria Bell has been braiding hair since she was 3, and she’s been doing it professionally for more than 15 years.

But in Iowa, where she now lives, she’s not allowed to use that skill to support herself and her family because of a set of “burdensome and arbitrary” state regulations, alleges a new lawsuit filed Wednesday in Polk County.

Photo provided by the Institute for Justice

TAKING ON THE STATE: Aicheria Bell has been braiding hair for 15 years as a professional, but that’s not good enough training for the Iowa State Board of Cosmetologists.

“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,” said Bell, who has been braiding hair professionally for 15 years in other states. “I just want the right to earn a living and not feel like I’m a criminal.”

She feels that way because of the Iowa State Board of Cosmetology, which requires that hair braiders are licensed as full-fledged cosmetologists. The licensing process costs thousands and requires a stunning 2,100 hours of training — more than 17 times than what’s required to become an EMT in Iowa — in techniques that have little to do with traditional African-style hair braiding, the service Bell wants to offer.

Now, the state will have to justify those requirements in court.

The lawsuit from the Institute for Justice challenges the occupational licensing rules for hair braiders and other professions regulated by the Iowa Board of Cosmetology Arts and Sciences.

“Iowa has no business licensing something as safe and common as hair braiding,” IJ attorney Meagan Forbes, lead attorney in this case, says in a statement provided to Watchdog. “You shouldn’t need the government’s permission to simply braid hair.”

Forbes argues that hair braiders, like Bell and Achan Agit, the two lead plaintiffs in the case, aren’t cosmetologists and don’t offer other cosmological services, so they shouldn’t be subject to the same regulations.

The state board failed to return a request for comment on the lawsuit or on the necessity of the licensing laws for hair braiders.

But many professions in Iowa are subject to similar licensing regulations.

RELATED: Effort to reform occupational licensing in Wisconsin

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.

Photo provided by Institute for Justice

CAN’T BRAID HAIR WITHOUT A HIGH SCHOOL DIPLOMA: She could earn a living and support her family by braiding hair, but first she has to go back to high school – where there are no classes in hair braiding.

Which is where Bell and Agit find themselves.

According to the lawsuit, the 2,100 hours of cosmetology training would cost the two women as much $22,000 in tuition to state-approved cosmetology schools.

The state regulations also require a high school degree or GED, which is holding back Agit. She moved to the U.S. from Sudan in 2004 but has been braiding hair since she was 5, according to court documents.

She could earn a living and support her family by braiding hair, but first she has to go back to high school — where there are no classes in hair braiding, it’s probably safe to assume — and then spend hours learning to apply makeup and to dye hair.

“Requiring African-style hair braiders to undergo 2,100 hours of largely irrelevant cosmetology training, which does not teach or involve African-style hair braiding, is not rationally related to a legitimate government interest,” the lawsuit alleges.

Licensing schemes are bad news for consumers, too. As the White House report noted, occupational licensing tends to limit competition and forces prices to climb by restricting the supply of services.

“By one estimate, licensing restrictions cost millions of jobs nationwide and raise consumer expenses by over one hundred billion dollars,” the authors of that report concluded.

In 10 of 12 cases studied, the authors failed to identify an increase in quality of safety because of licensing laws.