September 21, 2020
By Heather Curry and Jon Riches

As most servicemembers can attest, the burdens of military service are often borne hardest by military families. That is particularly true for military spouses trying to build a career of their own. 

Unfortunately, state and local licensing laws can increase those burdens by putting up arbitrary barriers to employment for our military families. But if a recent federal measure introduced by Senator Mike Lee is passed, help may be on the way. 

Last week, Sen. Lee (R-UT) and 22 other senators from both parties announced the introduction of the Military Spouse Licensing Relief Act. This legislation would amend the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA) to require states to recognize the out-of-state occupational licenses of military spouses relocating across state lines on military orders.

This is important because military families move frequently: A typical set of military orders is two to three years, which means our service men and women are being uprooted constantly. That makes it hard enough for military spouses to build a career and find flexible employers willing to accommodate the moves. The problem is compounded when state and local governments put arbitrary occupational license restrictions in place. 

Occupational licenses are government permission slips to work. They don’t just apply to lawyers and doctors, but they also apply to hairstylists, plumbers, real estate agents, and dozens of other professions. In fact, depending on the state, a quarter to a third of all jobs in this country require an occupational license before someone can work in the job of his or her choice. 

And each state has different requirements for each license. So you can be a licensed real estate broker, nurse, or barber in one state, but once you cross state lines, you can’t practice your profession, regardless of how long you have been doing it. This can mean hundreds of hours of extra training and thousands of additional dollars—just to keep doing the same job in your new state. These regulatory hoops can disrupt careers, sometimes permanently.   

And the reality is that these frequently fall hardest on members of the military and their families, who, with each military move, must get a new license or exit the workforce. Because of this regular mobility, military spouses face an unemployment rate that is nearly six times higher than the general population. This is true even though military spouses have high levels of education and job skills that are in high demand.

The Military Spouse Licensing Relief Act recognizes that military families are particularly vulnerable to the impact of state licensing regulations, because the government requires them to move so frequently. Rather than ask military spouses to clear high regulatory hurdles every time they have receive a Permanent Change of Station orders, this essential reform requires state licensing agencies to recognize the time and training a military spouse has already invested in obtaining a license out-of-state.

But the bill also recognizes an essential truth about occupational licensing: You don’t forget how to cut hair when you move from one state to another. You don’t forget how to sell a house, or run wire, or care for patients. In this way, the Military Spouse Licensing Relief Act builds on work done by the Goldwater Institute at the state level to allow for universal recognition of out-of-state licenses. 

Last year, Arizona became the first state in the country to adopt a new universal licensing law, which allows someone who holds a license in another state for at least a year to practice their profession in Arizona if they move to the Grand Canyon State. As state lawmakers recognized, if someone has been safely and productively practicing their trade in another state, they can safely and productively practice it in Arizona.

Ten other states have adopted similar measures for either all residents or military families, with many more states to consider this legislation next year. 

States should not be in the business of putting up indiscriminate barriers to those who simply want to earn a living. This is especially true for our military families, who bear the burden of constant mobility. The Military Spouse Licensing Relief Act expands on the important work being done on this issue in the states and guarantees that the rights our military families sacrifice so much for—including the right to earn a living—will also be enjoyed by them.

Heather Curry is the Director of Strategic Engagement at the Goldwater Institute. Jon Riches is the Director of National Litigation at the Goldwater Institute and a Commander in the U.S. Navy Reserve.

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