How Burdensome Occupational Licensing Hurts Workers in Wisconsin

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Picture this: Jane is a chef getting back on her feet after being burned by Wisconsin’s COVID-19 lockdowns that shuttered the café she worked for and robbed her of her American Dream. She’s always had a passion for making classic Wisconsin food, so she decides to open a food cart in downtown Milwaukee serving up quick bites to busy passers-by and tourists looking for some midwestern comfort food.

She already has a seller’s permit, which is all the state says she needs to start offering her handmade cheese curds and sizzling butter burgers. But on her first day selling quintessential Wisconsin eats on the streets of Milwaukee, she receives a citation for not having an additional mobile seller’s permit which, she is told, is required by the city to operate a food cart.

Despondent, she returns home, frustrated and wondering how she’ll pay both the citation fine and the fee for another seller’s permit. Meanwhile, Jane’s excited new customers move on to another eatery and her expiring perishables go into the dumpster behind her rented storage facility.

This is just a snapshot of how crushing occupational licensing laws affect real people daily. At a time when states should be encouraging work and making it easier to enter the workforce, local licensing requirements are making it more difficult for innovators like Jane to start businesses and provide for themselves and their families.

Redundant Barriers to Entry

Wisconsin is heaping cumbersome local licensing requirements on professionals and business owners. The state requires more lower-income occupations to be licensed than do neighboring states, including occupations that aren’t typically licensed by the state such as bartenders and animal trainers.

While Wisconsin prohibits localities from imposing licensing requirements that are more stringent than the state’s, the problem arises when localities require licenses that are in addition to state licenses for the same occupation.

Local licensing often reaches the level of absurdity. In Madison, a state license to sell bicycles is not sufficient to operate a bicycle shop. One would also need a city license to sell little Johnny that new bike he has been saving up his allowance money for.

These requirements are redundant, expensive, and only serve as added barriers to entry for entrepreneurs and business owners. And Wisconsin voters see this: A recent survey conducted by the Center for Excellence in Polling revealed that a majority—71 percent—of Wisconsin voters support reforming occupational licensing laws to be more worker friendly.

More Costs, More Bureaucracy

The problem with burdensome occupational licensing requirements becomes even more depressing when one considers the issue by the numbers. On average, a single occupational license in Wisconsin requires $259 in fees, 214 days of educational experience, and one exam—far above anything Wisconsin’s neighbor states require.

These additional licensing requirements often don’t make sense, either. For example, it takes more than 10 times longer to become a cosmetologist in Wisconsin than to become an EMT. Nationally, burdensome licensing requirements result in three million fewer jobs.

Part of the solution to easing the licensing burden lies with the state doing a better job of removing unnecessary licensing requirements and instead approaching licensing with common sense. Almost half of all Wisconsin voters support requiring the state of Wisconsin to review at least 10 percent of all existing occupational licensing laws every year.

And more than half of all Wisconsin voters support requiring the state to conduct research and report on how occupational licensing requirements impact workers and the economy.

Beyond that, solving the problem of burdensome local licensing is simple and within Wisconsin’s grasp: Prohibit local licensing for occupations already licensed at the state level.

One license is enough—when the state says you’re certified to work, your locality shouldn’t need yet another layer of paperwork and bureaucracy to keep you from making a living.

Voters want the state to cull unnecessary licensing requirements to keep the public safe while making it easier for low-income workers to work in their trained profession: 56 percent say they’d support limiting occupational licensing requirements only to professions that could put the public in credible danger if they are not properly regulated.

Eliminating redundant occupational licensing requirements in the Badger State would have enabled Jane, the cheese curd chef, and the bicycle salesman to enter the marketplace more quickly and easily so they could start working, grow the economy, and pursue the American Dream.  

Read more on occupational licensing reform in Wisconsin in One Major Barrier to the Badger State Comeback.