Occupational Licensing in California

What is Occupational Licensing?

An occupational or professional license is a permit issued by the government that lets someone work in a particular field. In California, one out of every six workers must now get an occupational license before they can legally do their jobs. But many licenses don’t even improve service quality or protect the public from actual harm.

Licenses Create Barriers to Working in California

Occupational licenses often impose high barriers to entry. That makes it much harder for people to find work or to start a new business. According to the Institute for Justice’s report, License to Work, the average license in California for low- and moderate-income jobs takes 837 days of education and experience. In fact, California has the second worst licensing laws in the nation. And those required classes can be very expensive.

For instance, cosmetology is one of the state’s most popular licenses. In California, it takes at least 1,000 hours of classes to get a license in cosmetology. On average, a cosmetology program in California costs $17,144, while the average student takes out $7,337 in federal student loans. But despite such a hefty investment, many cosmetologists barely earn enough to get by: Half of California ’s cosmetologists make less than $27,770 a year.

All told, the state’s licensing requirements come with heavy costs. A separate study by IJ, At What Cost? , estimated that occupational licensing in California costs the state’s economy $22 billion each year and leads to nearly 195,000 fewer jobs.

Licensing Lawsuits by the Institute for Justice in California

To better foster economic liberty, the Institute for Justice has filed multiple lawsuits against strict occupational licensing laws in California. IJ successfully represented Dr. JoAnne Cornwell, who challenged a California law that banned her and other African-style natural hair braiders from working without a cosmetology license—a license that required 1,600 hours of training.

IJ also sued on behalf of Dario Gurrola, who learned how to fight fires while in prison and wanted to become a professional firefighter full time. Despite his firsthand experience, California imposes a lifetime ban on anyone who has been convicted of two or more felonies from ever obtaining an emergency medical technician (EMT) certification, which is required for many firefighting jobs. Unfortunately, Dario’s case was dismissed by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2022.

In a major win for the First Amendment, the Ninth Circuit struck down a California law that criminalized teaching trade skills. Bob Smith founded the Pacific Coast Horseshoeing School to teach how to trim and shoe horses’ hooves. But since Bob’s school taught students who didn’t graduate from high school, he ran afoul of state regulators. Represented by IJ, Bob fought back and won.

Continuing the fight to protect free speech from licensing boards, IJ is currently litigating two occupational speech cases in California. IJ has filed a lawsuit on behalf of Ryan Crownholm, an Army veteran turned entrepreneur who was fined $1,000 for using public information to draw lines on maps. The Institute is also representing Akhila Murphy and Donna Peizer, two end-of-life doulas who run a home-funeral nonprofit that’s been threatened by the state’s Cemetery and Funeral Bureau.

Recent Licensing Reforms in California

In recent years, California has passed legislation that makes it easier for people with criminal records to obtain a license to work. California also eased restrictions on nurse practitioners, allowing them to operate independently (i.e., without physician supervision) after three years. In 2021, California reduced the number of hours required to become a licensed barber, cosmetologist, or shampooer.

Can You Get a License to Work with a Criminal Record in California?

Generally, yes. Anyone applying for a license issued by the California Department of Consumer Affairs, the state’s main licensing agency, can only be denied if they have been convicted of a crime that is “substantially related” to the license they want. California also bans licensing boards from considering arrests, dismissed and expunged records, and criminal convictions older than 7 years ago (aside from “serious offenses”). Boards must also consider evidence of rehabilitation and the amount of time that passed since the crime occurred.

However, California’s protections do not apply to many health care facility licenses, as well as licenses for emergency medical technicians (EMTs) and certified nurse assistants (CNAs). Overall, California received a B- for its laws, according to IJ’s report, Barred from Working.

How You Can Help

If you are a California resident and you want to help fight against these unfair and unnecessary licensing laws, there are a few ways you can get involved. You can donate to the Institute for Justice, sign up for our email updates, and share our message with your network. Together, we can make sure that all California workers have the economic liberty they deserve.

California Occupational Licensing In The News

Are Occupational Licenses Preventing You From Working in California ?

Are you not able to exercise your job or open a business because of burdensome occupational licensing requirements in your state?

Are you forced to waste valuable time and money to become licensed?

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Occupational Licensing Research

Economic Liberty | Occupational Licensing

License to Work 3

This third edition of IJ’s landmark License to Work report finds that for lower-income Americans, licensing continues to be widespread, burdensome and—frequently—irrational. It also provides a blueprint for meaningful licensing reform.

Cosmetology | Economic Liberty

Beauty School Debt and Drop-Outs

Cosmetology is one of the most widely and onerously regulated occupations for lower-income workers, yet little research has explored the experiences of aspiring beauty workers. This first-of-its-kind study takes advantage of federal educational…

Barred From Working

Economic Liberty | Occupational Licensing

Barred From Working

Earning an honest living is one of the best ways to prevent re-offending. But strict occupational licensing requirements make it harder for ex-offenders to find work, thwarting their chances of successful reentry.

Economic Liberty | Occupational Licensing

At What Cost

Not only do state occupational licensing laws force people to spend a lot of time and money earning a license instead of earning a living, they also impose real economic costs. This study takes advantage…

Learn more about our Economic Liberty work.

Economic liberty—the right to earn a living in the occupation of your choice without unnecessary government interference—is at the heart of the American Dream. Unfortunately, all too many entrepreneurs find that this dream is under constant attack by unreasonable licensing, permitting and other requirements that stand in the way of honest competition.

Learn More

Reforming Occupational Licensing Nationwide

All Americans deserve the opportunity to earn an honest living. Yet occupational licenses, which are essentially permission slips from the government, routinely stand in the way of honest enterprise. Since our founding, IJ has fought to roll back oppressive occupational-licensing rules in more than two dozen distinct occupations, ranging all the way from tax preparers to florists to traditional African hair braiders. Learn more about IJ’s occupational-licensing work in all 50 states:

Alabama | Alaska | Arizona | Arkansas | California | Colorado | Connecticut | Delaware | Florida | Georgia | Hawaii | Idaho | Illinois | Indiana | Iowa | Kansas | Kentucky |Louisiana | Maine | Maryland | Massachusetts | Michigan | Minnesota | Mississippi | Missouri | Montana | Nebraska | Nevada | New Hampshire | New Jersey | New Mexico | New York | North Carolina | North Dakota | Ohio | Oklahoma | Oregon | Pennsylvania | Rhode Island | South Carolina | South Dakota | Tennessee | Texas | Utah | Vermont | Virginia | Washington | Washington, D.C. | West Virginia | Wisconsin | Wyoming