Hunter Wilson is building an impressive resume as a Honolulu barber.

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At 27, he manages a sleek new barber shop, The Cutlery, in Kaimuki: a combination bar, restaurant and barber shop. And he’s toured the mainland representing the Dutch product line Reuzel. It’s an auspicious start for a young professional who started his 1,500 hours of training required to be a barber by Hawaii law when he was just 17.

But there’s one thing Wilson doesn’t have: a barber license that he can use in other states. That’s a big difference from locales like Arizona, for instance, which has reciprocity agreements with 28 other states, according to the American Barber Association. And the result is there are certain things Wilson can’t do when he’s on the road, even though he’s licensed in Hawaii.

“I can still cut hair as a demo,” he says. “But I can’t get paid. I can’t do a pop-up.”

Hunter Wilson
Hunter Wilson, manager of The Cutlery barber shop in Kaimuki, has a Hawaii license to cut hair but it’s not recognized anywhere else. Stewart Yerton/Civil Beat /2021

And barbers are hardly alone. While more than a dozen other states have made sweeping changes to recognize occupational licenses granted in other states, Hawaii continues to rely on an ad hoc, patchwork approach built up on a law passed almost half a century ago.

That may be about to change.

“There are fields where there are shortages where it makes sense to look at reciprocity,” said Rep. Aaron Ling Johanson, who chairs the House Consumer Protection and Commerce Committee. “The door is certainly open to continued reform and to explore reciprocity.”

Although Johanson said protecting public health, safety and welfare remains the paramount concern for his committee, lawmakers have shown an openness to reform the laws. Last session, for example, the Legislature passed a bill to make it easier for military dependents to transfer licenses to Hawaii, Johanson noted.

And it makes sense to consider more such changes, said House Speaker Scott Saiki.

“The House seeks modernization and reform in state government, and this plays right into that,” he said.

Protect The Public, Not Professions

The 2022 legislative session will mark 45 years since lawmakers enacted the Hawaii Regulatory Licensing Reform Act of 1977, which provides the framework the state uses to license a spectrum of professional occupations, from barbers and cosmetologists, to auto mechanics, acupuncturists and boxing promoters.

Lawmakers at the time noted a growing concern about a “rapid proliferation” of regulatory boards and commissions along with a perception that license requirements were being set up not to protect consumers but to lock newcomers out of the profession. “Decisions to regulate have in the past been heavily influenced by the trade or occupational group affected,” lawmakers found.

The resulting law said the government could regulate or license a profession only when “reasonably necessary to protect the health, safety, or welfare of consumers of the services.” The purpose of licensure should be to protect the public and shouldn’t increase costs of services or “unreasonably restrict entry into professions and vocations by all qualified persons,” the statute says.

House Chair Aaron Johanson conference committee.
After working on a bill to help military dependents transfer professional licenses to Hawaii during the 2021 legislative session, Rep. Aaron Ling Johanson, right, says it makes sense to do a systematic review of Hawaii’s professional and vocational licensing programs. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

A central question is whether license requirements unreasonably restrict qualified people from doing work they’ve been trained to do – work they might have done for years while licensed in another state.

Hawaii has 25 professional and vocational boards, which are made up mostly of professionals from the industries the boards regulate, and 27 additional licensing programs regulated by the director of the Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs. Professional requirements vary widely, according to the statutes and administrative rules governing the various professions.

For some occupations, existing laws already include reciprocity provisions or something known as “licensure by endorsement,” which lets the DCCA director issue a license to an applicant licensed in another state. Such provisions apply to at least 18 of the 52 professions regulated by the DCCA’s Professional and Vocational Licensing Division, said Jayson Horiuchi, a DCCA spokesman.

Such occupations include behavioral analysts, chiropractors, collection agents, dispensing opticians, hearing aid dealers, pharmacists, social workers and respiratory therapists.

But that leaves more than 30 trades and professions where people can’t simply move to Hawaii and do their jobs without jumping through some hoops, no matter how accomplished they are. This situation naturally benefits people already licensed in Hawaii, and it is generally those people who control the boards that set the license requirements.

A case in point is the Elevator Mechanics Licensing Board. The seven-member board is supposed to be composed of four elevator mechanics, two members of the public and a non-voting member from the Hawaii Department of Labor and Industrial Relations. But only five board positions are filled, with four filled by mechanics.

What’s more, the chair, Robert “Tony” Greig, is also president of Hawaii’s elevator mechanics union, the International Union of Elevator Constructors Local 126, and the vice chair, Evan Fong, is the union’s vice president.

Meanwhile, elevator repair mechanics must pass an exam prescribed by the Hawaii Elevator Mechanics Licensing Board and show proof of completing a two-year apprenticeship regardless of whether the applicant was licensed elsewhere.

Greig, the board chair and union president, did not return calls for comment.

Barriers are relatively low for licensed nurses who move to Hawaii from other states, the nurses union president says. But Gov. David Ige still had to issue an emergency order waiving Hawaii license requirements for nurses moving here to help address a surge on Covid-19 cases earlier this year. Courtesy: The Queen's Health Systems

How Hawaii’s license requirements hinder needed professionals from moving here easily became apparent during the pandemic. Gov. David Ige had to sign an emergency order waiving Hawaii license requirements for nurses who were licensed in other states so they could come here to help deal with a surge in Covid-19 cases.

“These suspensions ensure all health care demands are met while Hawaii continues to respond to the impacts of COVID-19 and its variants,” the order says.

For nurses moving between most U.S. states, such emergency license waivers are not necessary. That’s because most states have signed on to the Nurse Licensure Compact, a multi-state license program that lets nurses move between compact states without having to get additional licenses. There are now at least 30 compact states and a number others where laws are pending or awaiting implementation, including California. Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands also have signed on.

The compact could make sense for Hawaii, said Dan Ross, president of the Hawaii Nurses Association, OPIU Local 50, although he said Hawaii’s current licensing requirement for nurses isn’t overly burdensome. Nurses with existing licenses don’t have to retest, he said. But there are some time-consuming administrative processes.

“I think there is room for improvement,” he said.

“I don’t think it’s a major barrier to keeping people from coming over here who want to come over here,” he said of Hawaii’s licensure program. “The main thing you want to know is whether there’s a disciplinary action against them by the board in the state where they came from?”

Hawaii Honors Licenses Of Military Spouses

Hawaii already has made it easier for some professionals licensed elsewhere to work here. During the 2021 session, lawmakers passed a measure mandating Hawaii approve temporary licenses for military spouses stationed in Hawaii who were licensed in another state. The law applies to two dozen occupations, including acupuncturists, dentists, nurses, mental health counselors, medical doctors and psychologists.

Now might be the time to look beyond carving out an exception only for the military, Johanson said.

“I think it makes sense to have an overall, systematic review of the regulated industries to make sure we have up-to-date information on what it makes sense to keep as it is and what could be improved,” he said.

The Legislature would likely provide resources to DCCA to enable it to do an initial analysis, which lawmakers could use to guide policymaking.

“I think it is healthy to have this discussion,” Johanson said.

Hawaii’s Changing Economy” is supported by a grant from the Hawaii Community Foundation as part of its CHANGE Framework project.

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