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How Occupational Licensing Rules Affect Military Families


On Friday, President Biden signed a sweeping executive order that aims to promote competition in the U.S. economy. The White House says the order is designed to increase consumer protections, strengthen small businesses and help workers find good jobs. One way Biden is doing this is by encouraging states to ease occupational licensing restrictions. These are rules requiring licensing for workers in a number of professions, like teaching, hairstyling or interior design. But the regulations for those licenses vary from state to state, which can hinder those workers' ability to move around. And that's especially true for military spouses, many of whom hold jobs that require licensing and who also frequently have to move across state lines.

Here to talk about the executive order and how it might affect military families is Marinelle Reynolds. She's a licensed clinical social worker and a military spouse herself. Marinelle, welcome.

MARINELLE REYNOLDS: Thank you so much for having me.

KURTZLEBEN: So first off, what was your reaction to Biden signing the executive order and the fact that he's taken on this issue?

REYNOLDS: You know, I think that it was a great step in movement towards helping ease a lot of unemployment for military spouses because unemployment affects military spouses at six times the national average, with people of color and recently relocated spouses being disproportionately affected. And as we know, 34% of military spouses in the labor force are actually working in occupations that require a license, and we're 10 times more likely to have to move across state lines. So this reduces barriers to unemployment in a meaningful way that can have a major impact on well-being but also economic growth.

KURTZLEBEN: Right. And you mentioned that occupational licensing affects a lot of military spouses. We should say it affects a lot of Americans, period - somewhere around 30% of U.S. workers, according to the Labor Department. You yourself work in a field that requires licensing. Can you tell us more about some of the challenges you face doing that work as a military spouse?

REYNOLDS: So I graduated with my master's in social work in 2009 for Michigan State University. And I have 12 years post-master's clinical experience. I'm independently licensed in four states. I've completed and passed four social work board exams. I've been a clinical trainer, a supervisor, a keynote speaker for organizations and universities. I have a private practice. I'm a doctoral student at the University of Pennsylvania.

But every time I move, which on average is about two to three years, I have to restart my application. And I'm required to fulfill a lengthy application package as if I am just recently graduated, which requires me to track down my original clinical supervisor from 12 years ago so that she can sign state-specific forms, notarizing and verifying that I have at least two years of supervised experience and that I've passed my board exams. And because I'm licensed in other states, I have to request the verification from all these other states, essentially verifying the same data three times. So it extends the licensure process, which, on average, takes about three to six months.

So there is a significant loss of income that happens because there's a delay in being able to apply for licensure and get your license. But I think specifically in my case, because I'm a behavioral health provider, it actually starts to impact access to mental health care because while I'm waiting for my license, I am not able to care for the community that I just left, and I'm not able to provide care for the community that I'm moving into.

KURTZLEBEN: Well, we should say, we've talked a lot about the burdens of licensing here, but licensing does have important functions, right? I mean, it protects consumers. It sets standards. It makes sure that people are ethical and qualified in their jobs. And there is an economic argument that licensing can be good for some workers by helping boost wages in particular professions. I'm wondering, in your mind, is there an optimal level of licensing and license portability that would work?

REYNOLDS: I think so. And I think that you bring up a really good point that licensing is a way to protect consumers across multiple, you know, organizations and industries. And I think it's really important that that is the primary motivation for the legislation, is that it's protecting consumers. And if you're looking across multiple occupational boards, a lot of them have similar requirements but add extraneous barriers that may not actually - the intention is not going to be protective to either the consumer or detrimental to the consumer. It becomes, like, an administrative form, so it becomes a bureaucratic kind of barrier versus actual protection of the consumer.

KURTZLEBEN: We should say this is also not the first attempt that's been made to reduce barriers in occupational licensing. The Trump administration, the Obama administration both talked about it, addressed it in their own ways. And they often called out military spouses as they did it. Are you hopeful that this order will create change for you and other military spouses?

REYNOLDS: I'm very hopeful. And I think you're right on in calling out that this has been something that's been on the forefront and that - although a majority of states have really agreed to some form of supportability, there was an audit done by the University of Minnesota that actually found that actual implementation is really uneven, which - only 40% of states actually included any information for military spouses on their website. And a majority of their customer service representatives didn't even know relevant legislation.

So I think this could be a potential, you know, move towards access and licensure portability, but only if the implementation is even across and actually plays out where the barriers are removed because what they've also found is that other states have included language in their legislation that either limited the scope of licensure for military spouses or veterans. Or it allowed occupational boards to determine to what extent they will apply the legislation. So unless there is meaningful action, then just making broad statements of including licensure portability is not really addressing the barrier.

KURTZLEBEN: That was Marinelle Reynolds, a licensed clinical social worker and military spouse. Marinelle, thank you for speaking with us.

REYNOLDS: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.