LITIGATION BACKGROUNDER

Oklahoma Threading

Can the government require you to learn someone else’s job to do your own? That is the question the Institute for Justice (IJ) and two threading salon owners have put before the court in Oklahoma City.

The state requires eyebrow threaders to spend 600 hours learning beauty techniques unrelated to threading and to pass two exams that don’t test threading to obtain an esthetician license, before they are allowed to provide threading services to the public.1 But threading is a simple and safe technique for removing unwanted facial hair—it involves just a piece of cotton thread.

These useless requirements put threading businesses—like those owned by IJ clients Shazia Ittiq and Seema Panjwani—in an impossible position: licensed estheticians don’t know how to thread, while experienced, skilled threaders must undergo expensive and irrelevant training before they can legally work. Even expert threaders must stop working for four months, and spend several thousand dollars, to learn things they will never do. As you might imagine, there aren’t many threaders in Oklahoma.

The Oklahoma Constitution does not allow the state to impose such burdensome requirements to do a job as simple and safe as threading.2 Threading is an ancient, all-natural grooming practice. But the state requires 15 weeks of training—more than half the time Oklahoma police are trained3—along with proven competency in esthetician practices unrelated to threading, all to whisk hair off the skin of a customer.4

Across the state line in Texas, threaders don’t need an esthetician license. In 2015, after eight Texas eyebrow-threading entrepreneurs partnered with the Institute for Justice to challenge Texas’s threading licensing requirement, the Texas Supreme Court struck down that state’s threading license, making clear that the government must have real and substantial reasons for regulating a person’s profession.5 The Oklahoma Constitution, like the Texas Constitution, protects Oklahomans’ right to earn an honest living.6 The Oklahoma licensing requirements, like those in Texas, cannot survive constitutional review.

That is why Shazia and Seema—two of the first threading salon owners in Oklahoma City—filed a lawsuit, insisting that threaders be allowed to continue pursuing their livelihoods without obtaining an esthetician license.

Eyebrow Threading and Its Benefits

Threading has long been a common practice in South Asian and Middle Eastern countries, where threaders frequently learn the technique at a young age from family or friends.

Threading involves making a loop in a strand of cotton thread by twisting the strand around itself multiple times. A threader then slides the twisted part of the thread across a person’s skin where unwanted hairs have grown. In this process, the thread traps unwanted hairs in the loop and lifts them from their follicles.

Not only is threading a precise way to remove hair; it is also simple and painless compared to other hair-removal techniques. It uses no chemicals, heat or sharp objects—only a piece of simple sewing thread. And it is generally faster and less expensive, taking less than 10 minutes and rarely costing more than $10.

These benefits have made threading increasingly popular in the United States. Additionally, threading creates vibrant competition with other hair-removal services and offers new opportunities for employment and entrepreneurship, particularly among recent immigrants.

The fundamentals of threading are easy to learn, but the skill takes years of practice to hone and master—somewhat like knitting, fishing, drawing or throwing a baseball. For this reason, threading establishments cannot provide high-quality threading services through licensees who lack years of experience mastering the skill, despite its safety. As a result, unlicensed threaders often provide better service than licensed estheticians—who do not have any training or practice in the profession.

Because threading is such a safe, simple practice, many states do not regulate it.Others offer certificates specifically for threading. But not Oklahoma. Unfortunately, Oklahoma’s oppressive licensing requirements for threaders keep entrepreneurs from creating and pursuing new jobs.

Oklahoma’s Esthetics Licensing Requirements

In 2012, the Oklahoma Board of Cosmetology and Barbering imposed a rule that nobody may provide threading services to the public without an esthetician or cosmetology license. Since then, threaders have been required to complete a minimum of 600 hours of esthetician coursework—not a minute of which focuses on threading technique. This training can cost more than $10,000. And the vast majority of coursework involves skills and techniques that threaders never use, like draping, manipulations, chemistry, light therapy and makeup. At the same time, relevant subjects like sanitation and safety fill only a small fraction of the required curriculum. Indeed, it doesn’t take 600 hours to teach a person how to keep threading customers safe and salon surfaces clean.

In addition to the coursework requirements, threaders must pass two exams, one written and one practical. Neither tests threading. Instead, threaders are tested on a wide range of practices they never perform. If threaders pass the exams, they are also required to pay an esthetician licensing fee.

For many threaders, these obstacles are simply too great. They cannot afford to stop earning income for months, spend thousands of dollars in school learning irrelevant skills, and pass two exams on matters unrelated to threading. But the Board strictly enforces these requirements. The Board has issued citations to businesses for providing unlicensed threading services and has insisted that threaders either obtain a license or stop working immediately.

Licensing Laws in Oklahoma and Across the Country

Requiring threaders to undergo hundreds of hours of irrelevant training to legally operate is irrational, but that type of irrationality is not unique to Oklahoma. In 2009, the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation demanded eyebrow threaders obtain expensive and unnecessary licenses in Western-style cosmetology, which included 750 hours of conventional cosmetology training but not a minute of instruction on threading technique. Eight eyebrow threaders partnered with the Institute for Justice to challenge these prerequisites, and the Texas Supreme Court declared the license requirement for threaders a violation of the Texas Constitution. IJ also sued Arizona and Louisiana over their licensing requirements for eyebrow threaders, leading those states to allow threaders to operate without a license.

But threaders in Oklahoma are far from the only people who are burdened by senseless restrictions on earning an honest living. Occupational licenses keep people from working unless they fulfill requirements set by state laws. These requirements usually include schooling, testing, fees, and continuing education or license-renewal tasks. Licensing laws should only be passed to protect public health and safety. Yet research shows that licensing laws often do little more than shield established businesses from competition and block those of modest means from entry into hundreds of occupations.That hurts both workers and consumers.

For workers, licensing heightens barriers to earning a living. These consequences disproportionately affect lower-income workers, who are less likely to be able to afford the costs of licensure. For consumers, licensing reduces their options for goods and services, and it makes those fewer options more expensive.

The number of professions subject to licensing laws in all states has exploded since the 1950s. In the 1950s, only one in 20 U.S. workers needed the government’s permission to earn a living in a chosen occupation. Today that fraction is nearly one in three.And compared to other states, Oklahoma is well above the average in burdensomeness of its licensing laws. The state’s threading requirements are no exception. They prevent skilled workers from earning a living in a safe profession that is increasingly popular among consumers.

The Plaintiffs

The Plaintiffs in this case Shazia Ittiq and Seema Panjwani, who each own and operate threading salons in Oklahoma City.

Shazia and Seema came to the United States from Pakistan in pursuit of their American dream. Both have been threading since their teen years, and they both wanted to earn their living by bringing the benefits of threading to Oklahomans. They opened beauty salons to provide threading services and support themselves and their families. Although Shazia holds a cosmetology license and Seema holds an esthetician license, they rely on unlicensed employees who, like themselves, are skilled in threading and can provide high-quality threading service. They have looked for licensed estheticians with threading experience. They don’t exist.

This was no problem until 2012, when the Oklahoma State Board of Cosmetology announced that all threading services be provided only by licensed estheticians. Because the esthetician licensing requirements don’t produce skilled threaders, and because skilled threaders generally can’t afford to complete the esthetician licensing requirements, Shazia and Seema face a dilemma: let their businesses suffer because they can’t find licensed estheticians skilled in threading, or employ unlicensed threaders.

Shazia and Seema have continued to operate their businesses by employing expert threaders who are not licensed, but not without consequence. The Board has threatened to shut Shazia’s business down on multiple occasions for providing unlicensed threading services, and in late January the Board ordered her to shut down her business immediately. And Seema had to let some of her unlicensed threaders go to avoid having the Board cite her business. She has always feared that the Board will take action and prevent her from running her business—a vital source of income for her family and employees.

The Defendants

The Defendants in this case are the Oklahoma State Board of Cosmetology and Barbering, its executive director and its members. Each has been sued in their official capacity.

Legal Claims

The Oklahoma Constitution protects the right to earn an honest living free from government interference, unless there is a real and substantial relationship between a restriction and a legitimate public need. With this lawsuit, Shazia and Seema will show that the application of Oklahoma’s esthetics licensing requirements to threaders violates state constitutional guarantees of due process and equal protection. That’s because the state is requiring threaders to complete onerous licensing requirements that have nothing to do with their jobs, and because it makes no sense to treat threaders the same as people who provide very different services.

The Oklahoma Constitution guarantees that Oklahomans have an inherent right to the “enjoyment of the gains of their own industry,” reinforcing the right to earn an honest living free from senseless government restrictions. This lawsuit asks the court to reaffirm that the Oklahoma Constitution meaningfully protects Oklahomans’ right to pursue their calling without having to become qualified for a different profession.

IJ filed the petition in this case on February 3, 2021 in the District Court of Oklahoma County.

The Litigation Team

This case is being led by IJ Attorney Marie Miller and IJ Senior Attorney Wesley Hottot. They will be assisted by Tulsa Attorney Adam Doverspike of GableGotwals.