Proposed Reforms Take Aim At Punitive Licensing Barriers That Illogically Block Ex-Cons From Some Higher Paying, Skilled Jobs
BY BRETT DICKERSON
It didn’t matter that I have mostly gray hair and only ordered iced tea for a drink. If I am sitting at Alyssa Scott’s bar in Picasso’s in Oklahoma City, I have to show my ID. I get a good laugh out of getting “carded,” but to her, it’s no joke.
Scott has been bar-tending in Oklahoma City for 10 years. It’s a good job that helps pay the bills. How important is keeping her license?
“If I ever lost my license, it would just set me back to square one,” the mother of a two-year-old said. “A lot of times people get really mad when I ask them for their ID, but, it’s really important. I could lose my license if I don’t.”
That’s just one example of how important licenses can be for working people.
And for many years, if anyone had any kind of record or didn’t meet what a board considered to be the “moral turpitude” test and had a prior conviction of any kind, a license would be denied resulting in a much more difficult time for a worker to get a good-paying job.
For those who have convictions in their background, but now possess the training, skills and discipline, a license is the key to moving from low-wage, temporary jobs to higher-paying skilled occupations and even pensions.
For those who have worked hard to reform and pay their debt to society the costs have been high for the rest of their lives.
But leaders in both parties are beginning to see moral and economic reasons to bring about reform.
NATIONAL AND STATE CONCERNS
Leaders in both national and state parties are beginning to see the trap of keeping someone who has paid their debt to society out of a good-paying job.
And it’s not just a problem for the individuals who want better occupations. Business organizations are starting to push for reforms in licensing to provide more skilled labor at a time of low unemployment rates.
President Barack Obama weighed in with a white paper on the subject. It was intended to start the discussion about denying licenses to otherwise good workers just because of their past convictions.
Early in his administration, President Donald Trump encouraged the process of re-evaluation to go forward, stepping to one side of his normal trend of disdain for all things Obama.
STATE TAKING ACTION
At present, there are 382 different trade and professional licenses in Oklahoma, according to a new database built by the Occupational Licensure Commission that was established in the waning years of Gov. Mary Fallin’s administration.
All of those licenses and certifications are controlled by a menagerie of independent entities. Each one has a different set of standards for who can apply and what the standards will be for receiving a license.
The commission is chaired by the state Labor Commissioner, Leslie Osborn, who won the election for the post only months ago in the 2018 election. Previously, she was a state representative known for taking stands that were not always in accord with her Republican Party leadership.
Its purpose is to provide research and input to the Legislature on changes to licensure that will allow more people to get licenses in a broad spectrum of work.
In a recent interview, she talked with us about the push for reform.
“What we want to do is make sure that the licenses are not impeding job growth – they’re not being protectionist,” Osborn said. “And on the other hand, there is a reason for some licenses in the view of public safety.
“We want to make sure that an embezzler, and repeat embezzler, is not owning a title company. There may be a reason if it’s in your purview, but do we want to castigate somebody that had a DUI 22 years ago as a blanket offense?”
TWO REFORM MEASURES
Two bills that originated in the Oklahoma House of Representatives are meant to lower the barriers to employment while maintaining high standards for those who seek licenses.
One, HB 2134, by Rep. Cyndi Munson, D-OKC, establishes an appeals process that would allow applicants to show “mitigation” and “rehabilitation” if they are denied a license because of prior convictions.
Her concern is to start unwinding the effects of the “tough on crime” trend of previous decades.
“That whole idea of being tough on crime and being afraid of certain people, that’s where these policies have come from,” Munson said. “That if we can keep them out of work, out of housing, out of our communities, then we’ll be safer. But that’s actually not the truth.”
She said both parties are showing concern for the people themselves in this issue about who can make a good living with their skills and determination.
“I think … this is just a unique issue that both sides are looking at regardless of where they’re coming from,” said Munson.
“Whether it’s the economic standpoint or from a human standpoint … where Republicans and Democrats can come together is looking at the family piece, too.”
She said families benefit from having a parent who is making a good living and providing a stable life for the family.
The other measure, HB 1373, by Rep. Zack Taylor, R-Seminole, affects the front end of the application process stating that entities overseeing occupational licenses ” … shall explicitly list the specific criminal records that would disqualify an applicant from receiving a license or certification.” It also provides for a challenge process.
We caught up with Taylor at the Capitol and asked his reasoning behind the push. It was considerably different from Republican thinking over the last few decades.
“I think for both sides of the aisle, but, in particular for the Republican Party, there’s a new approach and it’s more towards being smart on crime,” Taylor said. “If you have repeat offenders that are truly a threat to society, of course they need to be put away. But the people that just made mistakes, they need ways to reintegrate into our society.”
He gave some spiritual reasons for reforms, too.
“If you want to go back to even Biblical principles, you’ve got to forgive and allow them to move on – to prove themselves and prove that they deserve a second chance.”
Both bills are intended to eliminate vague “moral turpitude” and “character” tests sprinkled throughout the current legacy requirements. And both limit disqualifying convictions to those that directly relate to the occupation.
The measures both won overwhelming House support – Munson’s HB 2134 was approved 85-6 and Taylor’s HB 1373 96-2.
NOW IN THE SENATE
The Senate sponsor of Taylor’s bill, Sen. Julie Daniels, R-Bartlesville, explained why supports the licensing reform effort.
“The value is that we need to get people post-conviction back to work,” she said. “And if we’ve put up unnatural barriers to make it more difficult for them to succeed, then we face the problem of recidivism when what we really want is productive tax paying citizens.
“We want them to be able to go back to their families in some cases, support their families, support themselves.”
Daniels pointed to employment numbers being so high as another reason for trying to get more skilled laborers into the workforce.
“With such low unemployment, we’re desperate for people to apply and take these jobs,” she said. “So, if there’s a job going and there’s somebody over there who could do it, but for this problem, then we’re helping them. We’re helping the economy and we’re helping in many ways, small businesses, which we know are the backbone of the economy. And those are the ones that I think probably hurt the most when there’s low unemployment.”
Edmond GOP Sen. Adam Pugh, HB 2134’s Senate sponsor, did not respond to repeated in-person and telephone requests for comment.
VALUE IN LOWER BARRIERS
Jerry Hovarter, the Sheet Metal Workers International Union Local 124 business manager, offered perspective on the positive outcomes for those who are allowed to recover from prior convictions and become licensed members of a trade.
Sheet metal workers, for example, are generally isolated from the general public and from any kind of money or securities when they are on the job. That has allowed them to be licensed even as convicted felons when other trades may not have allowed them to be licensed.
So, that particular union has extensive experience that other trades may not have had. Their results have been very good.
“Our contractors will work them,” said Hovarter. “I don’t know of any circumstances in the nine years that I have been business manager that we’ve ever had a felon that has created an issue with one of our contractors.”
Asked what the jobs did for sheet metal workers who had prior convictions, Hovarter said: “They’ve achieved something that they actually have above a minimum wage job. They have a living for their family. They’ve got insurance, not just for them, but for their family as well. They’re building on a pension, so when they’re 65 and can retire, then they, can live very well …
“That means the world to them, whatever their past might have been.”
Journalist Brett Dickerson lives in Oklahoma City. This story first appeared in the April 2019 print edition of The Oklahoma Observer.