Commentary, News

New legislation would open up the job market for millions of North Carolinians

(Note: The following is a joint statement issued Monday by Bill Rowe, general counsel and deputy director of advocacy for the progressive N.C. Justice Center, Policy Watch’s parent nonprofit; and Jon Guze, director of legal studies for the conservative John Locke Foundation. The legislation it references, House Bill 770, is slated to be considered Tuesday morning by the Senate Judiciary Committee.)

The North Carolina Senate is currently considering a carefully crafted piece of legislation that creates new employment opportunities for millions of North Carolinians by making it easier for them to train for and be admitted to licensed occupations. The bill is a revised version of HB 770 (“Freedom to Work/OLB Reform”), and it combines the best features of two previously filed companion bills: SB 305—which was filed in March by Senator Andy Wells and Senator Warren Daniel—and the original version of HB 770—which was filed in April by Speaker Pro Tempore Sarah Stevens and approved last month by the North Carolina House of Representatives.

In North Carolina, more than 70 private boards and public agencies set licensing standards for approximately 180 different licensed occupations, and these occupations account for about 1/3 of all the jobs in the state. The standards currently in place tend to exclude people with criminal records and those who cannot afford extensive education and training. Since the ostensible justification for requiring occupational licenses is to protect the public from practitioners who cannot be trusted to do their work honestly, competently, and safely, these kinds of requirements make a certain amount of sense. However, as currently implemented, they go too far and exclude too many.

Creating Employment Opportunities for People with Criminal Records

An estimated 2 million North Carolinians—more than 25% of the working-age population—already have criminal records, and thousands more are convicted of crimes every year. Excluding all those people from a third of all jobs seems excessive on its face, but there’s another reason why such blanket exclusions are a bad idea. Nationally, more than 60% of people with criminal records remain unemployed a year after rejoining society, partially due to licensing restrictions.  Research shows that work plays a significant role in preventing dependency and is an indicator of how likely someone is to re-offend. If we want to discourage recidivism, therefore, we need to remove unnecessary restrictions on employment.

HB 770 does precisely that by requiring all licensing authorities, including state licensing agencies and private licensing boards, to review their existing policies with regard to applicants’ criminal histories and update those policies in specific ways. Rather than relying on blanket bans, agencies and boards will only be able to deny licenses on the basis of an applicant’s criminal record when the underlying crime is related to the duties and responsibilities of the licensed occupation or is of a violent or sexual nature. HB 770 also prohibits licensing boards from using non-specific and subjective considerations like “moral turpitude” and “good character” to determine whether someone will receive a work license.

HB 770 adds greater transparency to the process by requiring boards and agencies to state the considerations that will be used to grant or deny a license on their websites and on their application forms, and by requiring them to report to the General Assembly on how many applications are granted and denied, and the result when the applicant has a criminal record.  It also gives licensees the ability to petition a licensing board for a determination of whether the individual’s criminal history will disqualify the individual from obtaining a license before they begin mandatory educational and training requirements, potentially saving applicants hundreds of dollars and thousands of hours.

These kinds of reforms are far from radical or experimental. Over the past few years more than 20 states have enacted occupational licensing reforms to open up opportunities for qualified people with records. Examples include Kansas, Tennessee, Kentucky, Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi.

Creating Employment Opportunities for People with Limited Financial Resources

Onerous licensing requirements don’t just exclude people with criminal records; they also exclude those who cannot afford to spend hundreds of days and thousands of dollars on education and training. HB 770 provides an alternative pathway for such people by allowing the completion of government approved, private-sector created apprenticeships to fulfill costly licensing requirements—ensuring that workers receive the training they need, but in a cost-effective way.  And because these apprenticeships are based on competency instead of time spent training, this reform opens work opportunities for young and low-income North Carolinians who would not otherwise be able to afford the high cost of training courses or the time off of work.

HB 770 is an important and timely reform that will benefit all North Carolinians. We hope it is promptly approved by the General Assembly and signed by the Governor.

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