Occupational Licensing in Virginia

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 Virginia, more than one out of five 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 Virginia

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 for low- and moderate-income jobs in Virginia takes 580 days of education and experience. In fact, Virginia has the third worst licensing laws in the entire country. And those required classes can be very expensive.  

For instance, cosmetology is one of the state’s most popular licenses. In Virginia, it takes at least 1,500 hours of classes to get a license in cosmetology. On average, a cosmetology program in the state costs $17,264, while the average student takes out $7,456 in federal student loans. But despite such a hefty investment, many cosmetologists barely earn enough to get by: Half of cosmetologists make less than $26,510 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 costs the state’s economy almost $5.5 billion and leads to nearly 50,000 fewer jobs each year. 

Licensing Lawsuits by the Institute for Justice in Virginia 

To better foster economic liberty in Old Dominion, the Institute for Justice has filed multiple lawsuits against Virginia’s strict licensing laws. The Institute for Justice has twice sued the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, which regulates private vocational schools. First, IJ represented yoga instructors Julia Kalish, Suzanne Leitner-Wise, and Beverly Brown, who were banned from teaching people how to teach yoga without a license issued by the state. Prompted by IJ’s lawsuit, Virginia lawmakers quickly passed a bill to exempt yoga instructors from the state’s vocational schools licensing requirements. Since then, Suzanne alone has been able to teach more than 100 yoga instructors.  

A decade later, the Institute for Justice filed a second lawsuit against the Council, this time on behalf of Jon and Tracy McGlothian, who were barred from teaching vocational skills. With IJ’s help, they won in federal court and were ultimately able to enroll students. 

IJ is currently representing Rudy Carey, who has been banned from becoming a drug counselor because he was convicted of a crime almost 20 years ago. In Virginia, anyone who has been convicted of one of 176 “barrier crimes” is barred from working in any “direct care” position, which includes many medical and mental health licenses, even if the conviction is completely unrelated to the license.   

Sunrise Review in Virginia 

Under “sunrise review,” whenever a new job regulation is proposed, state regulators must determine whether the regulation is needed, its potential costs and burdens, and if there are any less restrictive alternatives. Between 1987 and 2017, Virginia regulators conducted 45 sunrise reviews across 41 different occupations. Many proposed regulations were unfounded: Only 22% of sunrise reviews recommended creating new licenses. All told, the Institute for Justice found that “Virginia consistently produces rigorous sunrise reports.” 

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

Boards governed by the Virginia Department of Professional and Occupational Regulation can deny licenses to applicants they deem “unfit or unsuited.” However, Virginia does require boards to consider if applicants have been rehabilitated and provide those applicants with a hearing before they can be disqualified.  

On the other hand, for licenses issued by the Virginia Department of Health, any felony can trigger disqualification, no matter how long ago the crime occurred and even if the conviction was completely irrelevant to the license. Overall, Virginia received a C for its laws in IJ’s Barred from Working report.  

How You Can Help

If you are a Virginia 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 Virginia workers have the economic liberty they deserve.

Virginia Occupational Licensing Cases

Are Occupational Licenses Preventing You From Working in Virginia?

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