Economists have warned that unemployment rates could continue to soar—thanks to the coronavirus’ fallout—which raises a troubling specter. The U.S. unemployment rate already stands at a staggering 14.7 percent, and nearly 1.6 million Georgians have applied for unemployment in the past 7 weeks, “accounting for 31.1 percent of the state’s March labor force,” according to CNN.
Safely and responsibly jumpstarting the economy is easier said than done, but once it revs back to life, there will likely still be many workforce challenges. This demonstrates the imperative for lawmakers to do everything within their power to remove barriers to employment, and they should start by reforming occupational licensing regimes.
Occupational licensing is a system in which potential workers must get the state government’s permission to work, ostensibly to ensure that they are capable of performing their duties safely and in accordance with state code. Professional licensing requirements can include time-consuming and costly schooling, the completion of state-sanctioned exams and forking over money to the state for a license in order to have the privilege of providing for one’s family. These requirements often exist with little rhyme or reason and frequently don’t transfer from state to state.
This is a particularly sore issue in Georgia, which has the 14th most burdensome occupational licensing mandates in the country. The state requires, “on average, $185 in fees, 464 days of education and experience, and about two exams,” an Institute for Justice publication reads. Nearly 30 percent of all employed Americans must have a license to work, which has surged dramatically from 5 percent in 1950. Professional licenses are strangely required for all kinds of occupations in Georgia, even including pre-need cemetery salesmen and librarians—presumably to prove they’re capable of shushing chatty library goers.
While I say that lightheartedly, licensing regimes often do little more than prevent people from entering the workforce, especially those who cannot afford the license, exam and education. This is the opposite outcome that Georgia policymakers should want as we try to economically recover from the coronavirus.
To be fair, Georgia has made progress on this issue. The state has enacted interstate compacts for certain medical professionals, including nurses, that allow them to practice in states that adhere to certain specified standards. Last year, Governor Kemp signed a bill into law to prevent the state from stripping occupational licenses from those who fall behind on their student loan payments. And there are a couple bills traversing the legislative process this year that would allow military spouses who have moved to Georgia to more easily obtain permission to work from licensing boards. Near the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak, Governor Kemp even used his emergency powers to temporarily reduce licensing barriers for medical workers.
These are all laudable steps. Even so, more needs to be done to help Georgians get back to work, and Peach State officials could look at other states as models. Arizona is perhaps the leading state on occupational licensing reform. In fact, not long ago, Arizona Governor Doug Ducey signed into law a measure that recognizes all out-of-state licenses so long as the licensee passes any state-specific exams. This permits those who relocate there to more easily begin working.
Former New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez inked an executive order permitting many unlicensed individuals to enter into agreements with customers in which they sign a waiver stating that they understand that the workers in question aren’t licensed. As a result, this bypasses many burdensome licensing mandates.
These are not the only answers to Georgia’s occupational licensing regimes. Lawmakers could look at reducing superfluous barriers and fees across the board and/or deregulating certain professions—i.e. do librarians really need to be licensed?
If deregulated correctly, there’s little down side. Studies have shown that stricter licensing requirements do not lead to better services. Rather, they result in costlier products, and the expense is passed onto the consumer. That’s something Georgians do not need during a recession.
One way or another, Georgia must deal with burdensome professional licensing regimes, and in light of the crippling unemployment rate, there’s little time to waste.