Occupational Licensing

'Human Trafficking' Used as Excuse to Try to Destroy Nail Salon Jobs in Connecticut

Occupational licensing programs deprive people of livelihoods and often don't improve public health.


Nail salon
Kobrin Nikita / Dreamstime.com

Would you believe that Connecticut is the only state in America that doesn't force nail tech and skincare workers to get hours and hours of training and pay for occupational licensing to do their jobs?

Unfortunately, that might be about to change, and you can thank overheated human trafficking panics and the typical fears of some sort of "public health" menace if nail salon workers in Connecticut end up unemployed.

Democratic state Rep. Jillian Gilchrest (West Hartford) has introduced legislation, co-sponsored by Republican Rep. Fred Camillo (Greenwich), to force workers at nail salons, estheticians (skin care therapists), and eyelash technicians to get a minimum level of education and licenses in order to work. (Unrelated, but an indicator of Gilchrest's mentality, she's getting a lot of attention now for another bill that would increase the taxes on ammunition by 50 percent with a rather absurd "How much ammunition does someone really need?" argument)

The way the Connecticut Post has been reporting the bill is both a fascinating and somewhat infuriating window into how unwilling people are to acknowledge how much occupational licensing harms poorer workers. The Post notes that many salon owners are calling for the regulation but seems rather incurious about deeper motives:

Those in favor—some lawmakers, lobbyists on behalf of industry associations, health inspectors and many salon owners—argue that a lack of licensure makes nail salons and spas unsafe for workers and their clients, both of which are mostly women.

They point to examples like New Haven resident Maggie Todd who alleges she received second degree burns on her left hand while receiving a gel manicure at Nail Studio in Hamden in 2016. She is suing Nail Studio in New Haven Superior Court.

Similarly, in a short video explaining why she introduced the bill, Gilchrest says salon owners have told her that they need to "professionalize" the industry and are "struggling" to find properly trained workers and that this is a burden on their business. Here's her video:

This explanation doesn't make a whole lot of sense. Training and government licensing are just completely separate issues. A nail salon can decide to hire only trained workers and could even arrange for workers to get training, if that's what the salon's owner wanted.

But, of course, that's all probably a smokescreen. The likely issue is that there are competitors out there who won't go through that effort and will therefore offer their services more cheaply than those who bankroll training for staff or hire staff who can demand better wages due to their skills.

"It's not unusual for folks asking for licensing to do so to eliminate competition or to raise the status of their own occupations," explains Lisa Knepper, director of strategic research for the Institute for Justice. She and the Institute for Justice put together a state-by-state report in 2012 documenting the extensive burdens that result from occupational licensing. They've also researched the overall costs to the economy.

For skin care specialists, that burden is fairly high, ranking among the Institute for Justice report's top 10 occupations for the amount of work involved in order to legally get permission to wax somebody's bikini line. The average fees amount to $120, but the average education demand is 149 days of training. That's more than what's demanded of a truck driver or an emergency medical technician. The average manicurist must get 87 hours of training before getting a license.

We don't know how burdensome these proposed regulations will be as yet. The bill (HB 5754) that's been introduced doesn't actually say what education requirements will be mandated. The text is just a paragraph calling for education and licensing.

These licensing requirements keep people from getting work, but do they actually protect consumers from health risks? A federal report put together in 2015 by the Barack Obama administration, the Department of Labor, and the Department of the Treasury questioned this wisdom. The report examined 12 studies, and only two of them indicated that licensing actually reduced public safety and health risks.

Connecticut nail salons are not some Wild West where government regulators fear to tread. Knepper notes that state law requires nail salons to be regularly inspected. The lack of a licensing regime for individual workers does not mean that the state has no way to crack down on unsanitary conditions. The state's Department of Public Health doesn't even want the new licensing regulations because it says it lacks the manpower to monitor compliance. Gilchrist says she thinks the licensing will bring in revenue, but the Department of Public Health doesn't actually get to keep the money it collects.

The lack of inspection manpower might explain any health problems with Connecticut nail salons rather than a lack of a licensing program. Connecticut actually previously had a licensing program for manicurists that required a whopping 500 hours of education. That regulation sunsetted in 1980 and efforts since then to reinstate the regime have failed.

So you would think then that there would be some ability to document the harms that have come from abandoning licensing, but what we get are anecdotes of women getting burns or infections from poor care. What we don't get is any data indicating whether consumers are more or less likely to be injured getting their nails done in Connecticut than in other states.

What has changed since those bygone days of licensing is that we now have a moral panic over human trafficking being used to justify all sorts of regulations and surveillance, and Gilchrist invokes it in her justification for this new licensing scheme. She even hashtags "humantrafficking" in her tweet. She explains:

As the former chair of our state's Trafficking in Persons Council, I saw firsthand how Connecticut's unregulated nail salon industry makes us a hotbed for human trafficking. By licensing nail salons and estheticians we enact much needed work protections for employees, protect the public health of consumers, and professionalize a booming industry.

There's little data to back up her claim that the nail salon industry (which is not "unregulated") is a hotbed for human trafficking in Connecticut. Federal data on human trafficking from 2015 shows very few cases (less than 15) being referred to the feds for prosecution from Connecticut. That's in total, not just in these businesses. Data from the National Human Trafficking Hotline shows less than three calls per year originating from Connecticut claiming human trafficking is taking place in "health and beauty service" businesses.

Knepper observes that there are better, less intrusive ways of trying to combat human trafficking in the industry than forcing all workers to get hundreds of hours of education.

"It's hard to see how this addresses the problem [of human trafficking], especially when it comes to substantive education requirements," Knepper says. A better, less intrusive approach would simply be a program of inspecting these salons, something Connecticut law already provides for.

"Is this a solution in search of a problem?" Knepper asks. "It may already be that Connecticut has already found the right regulatory system."

For more occupational licensing craziness, Eric Boehm recently took a look at some of the even more absurd bills being proposed across the country for 2019.