Occupational Licensing

These Hair Braiders Might Kill an Idaho Licensing Law That State Officials Admit Makes No Sense

They've been practicing African-style hair braiding for a combined 60 years. Now, these three women are suing for the right to make a living using their skills.


Tedy Okech, Charlotte Amoussou, and Sonia Ekemon have been practicing African-style hair braiding for a combined 60 years. Ekemon picked up the skill during her time in a refugee camp in Benin, while Okech learned how to braid hair to financially support her family while growing up in Sudan.

Okech, Amoussou, and Ekemon hoped to do the same in Idaho, but the state's costly and time-consuming licensing process has kept them from practicing their trade. With the help of the Institute for Justice, a libertarian public interest law firm, they're suing the Idaho Barber and Cosmetology Services Licensing Board for the right to make a living out of braiding hair.

"I have a mortgage and three little kids that I take care of and have to feed," said Ekemon at a press conference last week, according to The Washington Post. "This is what I have to do to feed my kids. I really need this."

Idaho is one of just five states that requires hair braiders to attain cosmetology licenses, which is a costly and lengthy process. Braiders must undergo 1,600 hours of training at a cosmetology school before completing a written and a practical exam. "Idaho does not require cosmetology schools to teach students African style braiding techniques and only two out of 110 questions on the written exam test students on braiding," wrote the Institute for Justice in a press release. "The practical exam does not cover braiding at all."

Idaho requires licenses for 67 of the 102 lower-income occupations surveyed by the Institute for Justice in its 2017 License To Work report, representing a serious roadblock for Idahoans hoping to improve their financial circumstances. The training mandated by the Idaho Barber and Cosmetology Services Licensing Board for a hair-braiding license costs as much as $20,000. Such barriers to entry are incredibly prohibitive for people who are low-income, immigrants, or looking to change careers, protecting incumbents while allegedly shielding consumers from risk. The Institute for Justice correctly points out how nonsensical it is for Idaho to invoke risk as a justification for hair-braiding regulations, given that the state does not require tattoo artists to be licensed.

Though occupational licenses are required supposedly in the name of preserving safety and standards in certain fields, the list of licensed professions—which varies from state to state—is often arbitrary. In Idaho, travel guides, barbers, makeup artists, naturopathic medicine practitioners, and shorthand reporters must all be licensed by the state, as must the more obviously risk-prone plumbers, veterinarians, nurses, and pharmacists. Idaho is also one of the two states that require licenses for log scalers, who estimate the value of logs. There is little rhyme or reason to the fees, education, experience, or exams required for each profession's licensing regime.

Following the Institute for Justice's lawsuit, state Rep. Colin Nash (D–Boise) introduced a bill that would lift licensing requirements for hair braiders. Nash said that the state "thought this had been fixed last year, but the Board of Cosmetology got slapped with a federal lawsuit," noting that he hoped the bill would help "avoid litigation surrounding that." Nash told the House State Affairs Committee that the legislation would "hopefully save the taxpayers some money, and get out of the way of private business owners who would like to engage in the practice of hair braiding."

The bill received unanimous support in the Idaho House and will now move to the Senate. For people like Okech, Amoussou, and Ekemon, who hope to professionally practice skills they acquired through informal pathways, work options are often limited by onerous licensing requirements. The latest legal and political action in Idaho could help reduce those difficulties.

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  1. I am confused. How does this promote open borders?

    1. Someone has to braid hair. And once the excessive barrier to entry costs are removed then ANYONE can do it. So the price will go down, it'll become a job Americans don't want to do, and we'll have to import people from poorer countries to do it at minimum wage.

      On a more serious note, I am kind of amazed at laws like needing a cosmetology license to braid hair. It's something the girls in my elementary school used to do at lunch time. It's so ridiculous it was a plot line in King of the Hill when Luanne was failing out of beauty school for being unable to braid.

    2. Perhaps she or Reason took some hints from the ubiquity of critical comments on her previous pieces. It was ridiculous that someone of her age and experience was commenting on irreversable foreign/national policy, and the idea that every world problem could be solved by importing migrants to the US was beyond comical.

      This one is a little closer to her wheelhouse, though she really missed the biggest argument. License or not, it is the marketplace that determines whether someone stays in business. I've never given a claimed professional a second chance at a bad haircut and like every other personal service, the license has nothing to do with the quality of workmanship. A license has never made anyone competent, and I've had a few barbers that prove that. I can get behind sanitation requirements, but that's a different argument.

      All said, I can give credit for notorious self-serving thinking to whoever developed the personal services scam: "As a non-licensed person [because for 5000 years of personal services there wasn't one], I declare myself an expert and join with my competitors to demand that the government filter new competition by making them secure an expensive education and license, the credentials of which are earned by paying me to approve their entry into the guild." Fucking brilliant, even if devious and absurd.

  2. Why would you want to deny more $ to the State and kill grandma at the same time?

  3. While this is a step in the right direction, the whole cosmetology license is absurd. It doesn't take 1600 hours to learn how to not spread lice, not burn the scalp when bleaching, what to do if you cut someone shaving, etc. 1600 hours seems more like the amount of time that it takes to learn how to do every task that a barber might be asked to perform, which doesn't have any safety basis. I bet that if they really tried, they could squeeze everything that a barber needs to know for safety into a 3 day course. Which... might still cover a bunch of unnecessary material for a braider, but if a cosmetology license cost $250 and could be completed over a long weekend, my guess is that nobody would have bothered throwing a suit over it.

    Heck, in most states, a food handler permit is under $25 and requires a <4 hour online class. So, there is already a model begging to be copied for how to license to "ensure" sanitation.

    1. This is the real answer. They should still have to take some kind of licensing class and exam so as not to spread lice, burn the scalp, etc. etc. that would apply to their profession.

      But 1600 hours is truly absurd. Make a separate course for hair braiding (and whichever other jobs) and make it a lot cheaper. Then you can have both safety and not unnecessarily hinder people trying to do their jobs.

      1. I had absolutely nowhere near 1600 hours of training or experience when I was handed the keys to my very own tractor trailer, licensed to travel up to 80 mph (depending on the chunk of interstate, anyway) while weighing up to 80,000 lbs. 200 hours, tops. Now, admittedly, I took to it well and was released on my own recognizance somewhat earlier than others, but when one weighs the potential risks of hair braiding and compares it, well, it looks rather silly.

        I got my CDL in NM, but I would be shocked if ID's requirements for one were significantly more stringent.

        1. "To apply for a CDL, you must be at least 18 years old and either have a valid Idaho non-commercial license (Class D) or have passed all tests required to obtain one. You may be able to take your Class D license tests and your CDL tests at the same time. However, you must have one year of licensed driving experience in order to obtain a CDL."

          That's one year of driving experience in a car.

        2. Hair braiding - do it badly you can lose customers to better hair braiders.
          Semi driving - do it badly you can flatten bus fulls of nuns and orphans.
          1600 hours for a hair braiding license does sound excessive.
          The logical solution is reduce the hours of training for hair braiding.
          The other solution is to make the required hours equal.

  4. reason has been reporting on the hairdressers'/barbers' racket of setting up barriers to entry regarding braiding for nearly a quarter century.

    Regulation | Hair-Raising Laws

    Virginia Postrel | From the April 1997 issue


    1. So much progress made. So much left to do.

  5. They should become cops their training only lasts 800 hours.

  6. Now for the medical profession...

    1. The medical profession genuinely has a very large body of knowledge, which takes years to learn, and an incompetent doctor might kill more people than any incompetent big-rig driver ever did. There's good reason for years of medical school, and even better reason for the years of internship - it's far less likely to pass through an incompetent than schools, written tests, and short practical evaluations (like for a regular drivers license). OTOH,

      1. The number of medical school students and of interns are limited so much that there are never enough doctors. That keeps existing doctors' incomes up while harming patients in several ways - suffering and illness becoming worse while waiting for an appointment, doctors that don't have time to _talk_ to the patient and might miss the diagnosis or fail to inform the patient of things he needs to do, and higher costs.

      2. Failure to utilize technological advances: Memorizing a huge catalog of rare diseases was once absolutely necessary, but IMHO, now it would be better to build a database of rare diseases and train the doctors to look things up.

      3. Maintaining competence: AFAIK, there's nothing done to ensure doctors stay current with changes in their field and haven't developed mental defects over 40 or more years of practice. I have an uncle that was still seeing patients at over 85. He was sharp as ever and still making the effort to learn new developments - but AFAIK, he would still have his license if he hadn't learned anything new in 60 years, or was beginning to develop Alzheimers.

  7. Couldn't have anything to do with race could it....

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