Brandy McMorris discovered African-style hair braiding as a teenager. Living in a group home, she would practice her craft on the other teenage girls she lived with, making extra money on the weekends braiding for schoolmates outside on the porch.
In adulthood, she’s a full-time accountant and a married mother of three, but her braiding skills remain sought after. When her husband was laid off, she offered hair braiding services in her home to keep up with the family’s bills.
“I had built up such clientele that money was pouring in. Clients were coming left and right,” she said.
Brandy’s list of clients grew so rapidly that she felt ready to open a small business. But then she learned from the Department of Health and Human Services that it was unlawful for her to braid hair for pay in Nebraska without a state cosmetology license.
At 2,100 hours, Nebraska and a few other states have the country’s strictest training requirements for cosmetology licensing. Credentialed braiders must attend a school of cosmetology, where courses can take up to 15 months and cost $20,000 or more.
“In your 2,100 credit hours, none of that covers braiding,” said Brandy.
“The only service that I’m offering to people is braiding. I just don’t see where it’s fair to me to have to pay $20,000 and not learn anything about it.”
Brandy became an advocate for Legislative Bill 898, which exempts those solely practicing natural hair braiding from state licensing requirements. The bill was introduced by State Sen. Nicole Fox and was supported by the Platte Institute in this year’s legislative session.
“I believed in myself, and I believed that…somebody with any kind of logic would look at this and say it doesn’t make sense,” said Brandy.
Hair braiding is just the start of Nebraska’s undue burden on hardworking Nebraskans. In 2015, the Pacific Research Institute’s rankings of state occupational licensing found Nebraska to be among the most onerous in the country, ranking 44th. Half of Nebraska’s neighboring states ranked in the top ten for being least restrictive, including Colorado, Missouri, and Kansas.
A 2007 report by the Reason Foundation found 96 different job categories in Nebraska required a license, while South Dakota required licenses for 90, Iowa 85, Wyoming 74, Colorado 69, Kansas 56, and Missouri only 41.
While supporters of unnecessary occupational licensing and certification claim they are protecting the public, the main effect of these rules has been to reduce competition by limiting entry to the marketplace. By blocking the creation of new enterprises like Brandy’s hair braiding business, customers are resigned to accept fewer choices and higher prices.
Though she had to stop her paid hair braiding work in the meantime, Brandy decided to challenge this obstacle to her right to make a living. She joined with the Institute for Justice (IJ), a public interest law firm representing people whose economic opportunities are being restricted by government. IJ has also worked with hair braiders in Iowa who faced similar licensure difficulties.
While many licensure and regulation policy debates can become contentious, Brandy’s diligence paid off in a big way when the Legislature’s Health and Human Services committee advanced LB898 unanimously and without opposition. The bill then sailed through on the floor of the Legislature by a vote of 42-0, and Governor Pete Ricketts signed the bill into law, which will take effect in July.
With this occupational hurdle removed, Brandy now plans to go into the hair braiding business full-time.
“What I hope above everything else is that I’ve taught a lesson to my children,” she said, adding that she wants her kids to know they can be entrepreneurs if they want, because their mother was when they were growing up.
The opportunity now available to Brandy and her family underscores the need for Nebraska’s policymakers to review all of the state’s unnecessarily burdensome licensing requirements. To other aspiring small business people, Brandy advises them to never accept these barriers “just because.”
“You can own a business, you can take whatever your gift is — whatever your skill is — and offer it and make a living.”