THE WORLD of labor licenses is not a fair one.
In Oregon, getting a food handler's license takes $10 and less than an hour. But professionally braiding hair, as Portlander Amber Starks discovered, requires 1,700 hours of training to earn a cosmetologist's license that is largely irrelevant to one's ability to braid hair.
Starks, 31, is a model and hair braider who's a proud champion of black women wearing their hair unstraightened and uncolored. In late 2011, she asked the state foster care system if she could volunteer to braid hair for adopted kids—seven percent of kids in Oregon foster care are African American and many adoptive parents are unfamiliar with natural hair care for African American hair. She got an enthusiastic yes, but then found out that even to volunteer as a professional hair braider, Oregon requires a beautician's license.
The practice of braiding hair falls under "hair design"—a licensed trade. Now Starks is on a campaign to reform Oregon's restrictive hair-braiding laws.
"We just grew up doing it, so we do it," Starks says of herself and friends who braid hair. "We don't sit and think, 'Is hair braiding illegal?' Why would we have to go to school to do something we learned how to do culturally?"
This isn't just an Oregon quirk: Only 11 states have no requirements for braiding hair, while the remaining states require from six to 2,100 hours of training.
According to federal numbers, fewer than five percent of American workers in the 1950s had a job that required a license. Today, it's roughly 30 percent. That's a great improvement for jobs that require intensive skills, or safety training. But unlike barbers or hairstylists, hair braiders don't cut, straighten, curl, or color hair—the skills commonly taught in cosmetology schools. What hair braiders do is braid hair. They weave in extensions and decorations, in keeping with traditions that originated in Africa.
Still, for some reason, states have lumped braiding in with more complicated and risky types of hair styling—Oregon exempts people from a needing a license only if they're not braiding hair for cosmetic reasons but, say, to keep someone's hair out of their face as they work in a kitchen.
"It's a one-size-fits-all solution," complains Starks. "The license is a big barrier to people who could be earning some money from braiding."
Washington State required a license for hair braiders until 2005, when the libertarian Institute for Justice filed suit prompting the state to "clarify" its law to state that "natural hair braiders" do not need cosmetology training. Starks now braids hair in a salon just over the river in Vancouver, but she's working with State Senator Jackie Dingfelder (D-Portland) to propose reform legislation for the 2013 legislative session in Salem.
Sightline Institute, a Northwest research center, contributed to this article.