Occupational Licensing in the District of Columbia

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 the District of Columbia, almost one out of every 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 District of Columbia

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 the District takes 275 days of education and experience. And those required classes can be very expensive.

For instance, cosmetology is one of the District’s most popular licenses. In Washington, DC, it takes at least 1,500 hours of classes to get a license in cosmetology. On average, a cosmetology program in the state costs $15,583. But despite such a hefty investment, many cosmetologists barely earn enough to get by: Half of cosmetologists make less than $31,960 a year.

Licensing Lawsuits by the Institute for Justice in the District of Columbia

Washington, DC was home to the Institute for Justice’s very first case. In 1991, the Institute filed a lawsuit on behalf of Taalib-Din Abdul Uqdah and his wife Pamela Ferrell, who owned and operated a natural hair braiding salon. But the District tried to shut their business down because they didn’t have a license in cosmetology, even though the city’s cosmetology courses didn’t teach natural hair braiding. Thanks to IJ’s lawsuit, the District exempted hair braiding from cosmetology licensure.

In the years since, IJ won a landmark First Amendment decision that struck down the District’s licensing scheme for tour guides. IJ also challenged city regulations that force day care providers to obtain a college degree, although those regulations were unfortunately upheld in federal court. IJ is currently representing Elizabeth Brokamp, a professional counselor licensed in Virginia who has been banned from offering teletherapy by the District’s licensing rules. Her case is still ongoing.

Can You Get a License to Work with a Criminal Record in Washington, DC?

Thanks to a 2021 reform, the District of Columbia has some of the best protections for ex-offenders who want to work in a licensed field, according to IJ’s Barred from Workingreport. Licensing boards can only disqualify applicants who have been convicted of a crime “directly related” to the license and must consider whether an applicant has been rehabilitated. Boards must also offer a predetermination process that lets applicants see if their criminal record could disqualify them, before they invest in any costly training or classes. The District also banned boards from using expunged, sealed, or vacated records to deny licenses.

How You Can Help

If you are an District of Columbia 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 District of Columbia workers have the economic liberty they deserve.

District of Columbia Occupational Licensing in the News

Are Occupational Licenses Preventing You From Working in District of Columbia ?

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