Catalina Olea worked as a massage therapist in Puerto Rico before Hurricane Maria devastated the island in September. The storm blew out the windows of her family's apartment building, forced the spa where she worked to close for repairs, and decimated the island's infrastructure.
Like thousands of other Puerto Ricans, Olea and her husband decided to seek shelter in the mainland United States. In Hartford, Connecticut, where they now live, Olea could earn as much as $50,000 working as a massage therapist in a hotel or spa. She's fully trained, completely competent, and an American citizen.
The only thing she's missing is a permission slip from the State of Connecticut. Unable to work without the proper occupational license, her family is getting by on food stamps.
"We thought opportunities here would be better," Olea tells the Associated Press. "It's a difficult process."
Licensure's barriers to economic opportunity are perhaps never more obvious than when they prevent people like Olea from finding good-paying jobs. Instead of simply going to work, displaced workers end up having to go through expensive and time-consuming classes, pass exams, and pay fees before getting a license. The fee to become a licensed massage therapist in Connecticut is $380, and that can be a high hurdle for someone who has just fled a natural disaster.
Olea is hardly alone. Puerto Ricans displaced by Hurricane Maria are running up against licensing obstacles in states from Florida to New England. Instead of rebuilding their lives, they risk falling into poverty.
Some states are handling the situation better than others. In Florida, for example, Gov. Rick Scott in October ordered the Department of Business and Professional Regulation to waive all licensing fees for Puerto Ricans displaced by Hurricane Maria. "It is crucial that we continue to do all we can to make it easier for these individuals to rebuild their lives and provide for their families," Scott, a Republican, said at the time.
Massachusetts has offered to waive the fees associated with teaching licenses for displaced Puerto Ricans. In New Jersey, the AP reports, state senators are mulling a proposal to grant licensing reciprocity to Puerto Ricans—but it's already been nine months since the storm hit, so that doesn't seem to be a priority.
In Connecticut, the mayors of nine major cities sent a joint letter to Gov. Dannel Malloy last month asking for help with the influx of Hurricane Maria evacuees into low-income housing and public schools. One item on their list was a request that the state waive licensing fees, so displaced Puerto Ricans could find work as soon as possible.
Malloy, a Democrat, seems to be throwing up his hands and claiming that he can't do anything to help. His office tells the AP that he does not have authority to make the change himself but he would support legislation to give the Department of Consumer Protection discretion to do so.
The Department of Consumer Protection is part of the executive branch. The boards that regulate occupations in Connecticut—one of the most heavily licensed states in the country, according to the Institute for Justice—are also part of the branch of government that Malloy heads. His deference to the state legislature, while potentially praiseworthy in other settings, seems in this case like a weak excuse for not helping American citizens who have lost everything, who are willing to work, and who only want the state to get out of their way.
And Connecticut, by the way, could use the influx. The state has been losing population for years. It faces a significant budget crisis partly driven by the outflow of residents. Getting more people into the state, into jobs, and away from welfare programs sounds like a win-win.
The only opposition to lowering entry barriers for would-be workers like Olea comes from the people who benefit from licensing boards' protectionism.
"They don't want to recognize it although they've gone through the same education," Yanil Teron, director of the Center for Latino Progress in Hartford, tells the AP. "It's Connecticut protecting I don't know who but they are protecting other communities."
Who is running Connecticut: Malloy, or the special interests behind occupational licensing?