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Louisiana pushes to reduce ‘unnecessary’ barriers to employment

NEW ORLEANS – Alyssa graduated in May from nursing school with honors hoping to improve her family’s future. Yet, because of a past offense, the 38-year-old can’t get a job as a licensed practical nurse (LPN), even though Louisiana faces a nursing shortage with more than 6,000 positions open statewide.

The problem lies in overly restrictive occupational licensing regulations that block people with criminal histories, like Alyssa, from getting work. She didn’t learn of her disqualification until she’d completed two years of school and graduated.

Occupational licensing is government permission to work in a particular field. Advocates say the regulations behind licensing are particularly burdensome for communities of color and lower-income communities, especially for formerly incarcerated people, a group that includes anyone with a felony conviction, or even if someone has an arrest on their record.

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“I felt blindsided,” said Alyssa, who spoke anonymously to the PBS NewsHour and wanted to use a different name, fearing retribution from licensing boards. “It’s something that should have come at the beginning of the program when I was trying to get into the program versus me going through it, succeeding, and graduating with honors,” “Now, it’s like there’s no hope. Yet, all my classmates are working as nurses, and here I am just waiting my turn.”

Alyssa, who’s married and has a seven-year-old son, served 11 months for a marijuana possession charge nearly 10 years ago. The nursing school graduate believes her past is being held against her and stopping her from moving up the income ladder. After graduation, a skilled nursing facility hired her, but she was let go eight weeks later because of the licensing roadblock.

Alyssa said losing her job “put a damper on the income that I was expecting to receive throughout the summer,” which would have helped with costs like fixing her car. “What is the reason for not allowing someone to better their life?” she said.

“Even though I’ve been convicted of a crime, did my time, and came back into society as a productive citizen, I feel like it’s their way of giving me more punishment. I feel like I’m always gonna have to be explaining the situation, even if I paid my debt to society,” she added.

In recent years, Louisiana has started to chip away at some of the barriers to reintegration, including restrictive licensing. The state joins a nationwide push to let formerly incarcerated people become nurses, pharmacy technicians, barbers, or taxi drivers, among other occupations that require a license.

Louisiana governor signs criminal justice reform measures into law.

In 2017, Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards signed historic criminal justice reform legislation into law in Louisiana. This year, Edwards signed two bipartisan bills seeking to reform processes around occupational licensing in Louisiana into law. Photo courtesy of Louisiana Democratic Party

In August, two bipartisan bills seeking to reform processes around occupational licensing became law in Louisiana. One puts restrictions on occupational licensing regulations, boards, and commissions by requiring these entities to justify their rules based on public health, safety, welfare, or fiduciary duty. The other requires transparency, making it easier for the formerly incarcerated or those with arrest records to find out in advance if they’re eligible for a license before participating in school or training. The new law also allows people to challenge those rules in court.

The Pelican Institute for Public Policy, a think tank focused on reforming policies that limit access to work for Louisianians, supported the changes to the licensing process because they encourage job creation.

“One of the glaring issues we have is barriers to work, and it’s particularly nefarious for people who’ve had a touch with the criminal justice system,” Daniel Erspamer, CEO of the Pelican Institute, said. “Burdensome regulations are incredibly detrimental. They have a very tangible impact, obviously of not being able to earn a living, but the psychological impact of being denied something that you’ve earned is great.”

Licenses pose barriers to employment for people across Louisiana. The Institute for Justice (IJ) ranks Louisiana as the sixth “most broadly and onerously licensed state” in the country. The libertarian public interest law firm cites the state for imposing certain barriers on some occupations – higher fees, more years of required schooling and experience – that seem excessive when compared to the same regulations for other occupations that may present greater risks to the public.

In a 2017 report documenting licensing requirements in the U.S., IJ found that Louisiana requires licenses for 77 of 102 lower-income occupations. The institute noted that Louisiana’s licensing laws require, on average, $360 in fees, 202 days of education and experience, and roughly two exams. To underscore the state’s burdensome requirements, Louisiana is the only state to license florists.

The IJ report, too, provided a list of recommendations that state policymakers should take “to rein in licensing and mitigate its ill effects,” including repealing needless licenses, codifying in statute the right to engage in a lawful occupation, and establishing oversight bodies to actively supervise licensing boards, among others.

Erspamer said because there are so many occupational licensure boards and requirements, there is a lack of transparency. The new laws will set a standard and offer an enforcement mechanism.

“We’re going to be able to see the number of license renewals [and] new licenses issued. We’re going to be able to find out for the first time the number of applications for licenses that were denied,” Erspamer said.

The new reforms in Louisiana are expected to help approximately 18,000 people released from state prisons and jails each year. Prison reform advocates, including the Pelican Institute, say common sense reforms can ease roadblocks and make the reentry process smoother.

“The one [thing about licensing regulations] that always strikes me is it takes more hours of training to become an alarm installer in Louisiana than it does become an EMT,” Erspamer said. “Like much of criminal justice policy, we’re a little bit behind the eight-ball.”

Erspamer also credited the state legislature for passing just about every reentry-focused bill that was presented to lawmakers in the last couple of years.

“We have much more to do,” he added, “but the more we can do, then the lower the recidivism rates are going to get.”

How licensing regulations narrows opportunities

A 2004 report from the U.S. Sentencing Commission found that recidivism rates were 20 percentage points lower among prisoners with stable employment compared to those who were unemployed. While the commission has since done more multi-year projects on recidivism, it hasn’t done a follow-up report specific to employment.

According to Bruce Reilly, deputy director of Voice of the Experienced (VOTE), a criminal justice reform organization based in New Orleans, opposition to the reforms is rooted in fear, “and there’s no rational basis for it.”

Reilly, now 49, can relate to the formerly incarcerated. He’s been out of prison for 17 years and won’t be off probation until he’s 65. He was convicted of second-degree murder as a 19-year-old. Since being released, he’s overcome many roadblocks. After scoring in the top seventh percentile on the Law School Admission Test, known as the LSAT, he applied to 35 law schools but only got into one. He believes it was because of his criminal history. Reilly said he won’t even apply for a law license in Louisiana because of the barrier he might face with a felony conviction.

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Members of Voice of The Experienced (VOTE) appear before the Administration of Criminal Justice Committee Committee to discuss parole eligibility at the Louisiana State Capitol. Photo courtesy of VOTE

“It’s why a lot of us have had to be crafty and innovative. A lot of us have created our own jobs. Like, I wrote my own job description,” Reilly said. “For a lot of us people with convictions, the way that we are viewed by the mainstream is often that all we’re good for is sort of janitorial work. So, people don’t necessarily want to support us getting over any kind of legitimate hump. I think that is something that society needs to reckon with.”

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Advocates like Reilly believe background checks and restrictive licensing perpetuate discrimination, without persuasive evidence that a criminal background predicts risky behavior on the job.

“The reality on the ground is if you narrow down that sense of opportunity and choices, then, a lot of people [with criminal histories navigating the licensure] just feel like, ‘What choice do I have in my life? I guess I am back selling drugs.’”

Reilly said people in those situations can lose hope, leading them to think there’s no reason to invest their time and energy in the process “when they’re just going to shut me down at the end of the road anyway.”

Why businesses are rallying around licensing reforms too

Louisiana imprisons more people per capita than any other state or country in the world.

One out of every 86 adults in Louisiana are behind bars, according to 2021 figures documented by the Prison Policy Institute. While the state remains the “Incarceration Capital of the World,” the total prison population did drop by 7.6 percent after a historic package of criminal justice reforms passed in 2017. Advocates say the state has to catch up and give those released a fair chance at succeeding after incarceration. Additionally, reforms could galvanize the economy.

“Our policies for decades haven’t worked. Certainly, we want to make sure that the people are safe, but we have to stop creating red tape, which is keeping people out of the workforce and out of the ability to move Louisiana forward,” said State Rep. Thomas Pressly, R-Shreveport, who authored one of this year’s reform measures and promised more.

“While we have licenses for necessary and appropriate jobs, we shouldn’t burden blue-collar jobs with licenses that are unnecessary and unneeded. We will continue to study and look at what we can do to allow the free market to succeed in Louisiana and compete with our sister states,” he said.

The business community is rallying around licensing reforms too. The Hamilton Project, a research group within The Brookings Institution, estimates that strict licensing requirements have cost the U.S. economy 2.85 million jobs.Since then, additional studies have sought to further quantify how much licensing impacts employment in the country. One 2018 study found that licensure lowers employment by 17 to 27 percent, depending on the statistical model used. Another study, released in 2019, places that figure at 29 percent. These figures match research from the Prison Policy Institute, which found, on average, the unemployment rate among formerly incarcerated people is more than 27 percent, five times higher than the overall U.S. unemployment rate. The barriers to employment are also even higher for those who are Black or Hispanic, especially women.

GNO, Inc., the economic development organization for the greater New Orleans area, helped push the vital reforms into law. The nonprofit organization views reentrants as a valuable resource who “can be leveraged for these great, high demand, high wage, career opportunities,” said Jasmine Brown DeRousselle, GNO, Inc.’s vice president of policy.

“At a time where we have such a deep workforce crisis, particularly in [Southeast Louisiana], it is important that there be less barriers for those who are actually very talented, but underutilized, to be able to enter into certain occupations,” she said. “In reality, we have a lot of success stories that have come from companies who have opened their doors to reentrants … and allowed those who need a second chance to be a part of their company.”

The Justice and Accountability Center of Louisiana (JAC) is another statewide organization working to reduce the barriers individuals face following incarceration. They join a growing chorus of advocates who doubt that occupational licensure does much to improve public safety. Rather, “the real impact they have is protecting established businesses,” Reilly said.

“We’ve been seeing some restrictions with individuals that are formerly incarcerated who can’t even open a fishing store. It’s totally ludicrous,” said Sherie Thomas, JAC’s outreach and engagement director. “You have individuals that have a skill, as well as experience and knowledge and sometimes even education and degrees behind them, [but] the only barrier that they have is their criminal record. So it would be wise for the state to assist in reducing some of these barriers, especially if it doesn’t create any type of issue with safety.”

JAC, too, isn’t waiting for the laws to change. The organization is proactively working with licensing boards to reform overly broad restrictions that lock people out of work. This summer, JAC launched a pilot project to help more than a dozen formerly incarcerated people who work in the healthcare industry get their records expunged. Representatives from the center will sit alongside those individuals before licensing boards to provide support and legal advice. JAC hopes the program will ultimately help move lawmakers to pass even more reforms and restore hope for citizens with criminal records.

So far, JAC is helping people who want to be phlebotomists, morticians, dentists, pharmacists, and nurses, like Alyssa. The center is working with her to expunge her record and helped her prepare for an August appeal hearing before the nursing board.

Alyssa said the center’s support offered some relief when she was feeling helpless. She expects a final decision by November, but the experience has made her wonder if Louisiana is the right place for her family.

“ I feel like Louisiana is so behind when it comes to striving and thriving and giving people with convictions a second chance. I feel like if I was to move – maybe to the West Coast – this wouldn’t even be an issue. I’d already be a nurse already working on someone’s hospital unit.”

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