Who Likes Massachusetts’s Professional Licensing System?

Massage therapists fought for years to be recognized by the state of Massachusetts.
Massage therapists fought for years to be recognized by the state of Massachusetts. –Flickr/Creative Commons

Did you know you have to spend 1,000 hours in class to become an apprentice barber in Massachusetts? Or that you have to embalm 50 bodies before becoming a licensed funeral director?

These are some of the requirements set out by the Division of Professional Licensure (DPL), the state agency that regulates about 50 trades – from real estate brokering to cosmetology. The DPL is housed within the Office of Consumer Affairs & Business Regulation and consists of dozens of boards of registration, members of which are generally appointed by the governor and tasked with upholding the standards of their respective professions.

Although critics point to specific regulations as examples of government overreach, occupational licenses are widespread and often embraced by the very industries they affect most.

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Tightening Measures

One of the earliest boards was the Board of Registration in Pharmacy, which was established in 1885. At the time, pharmacists who had already been practicing for at least three years had to pay the state 50 cents to become certified. New applicants had to pay $3 and pass a test.

Now, the Board of Registration in Pharmacy (which is housed within the Department of Health and Human Services and not the Division of Professional Licensure), requires applicants to graduate from an accredited pharmacy school, spend 1,500 hours as a pharmacy intern, and score 75 percent or higher on two separate tests.

As licensing standards have tightened since the 19th century, boards of registration have also proliferated, requiring more and more professionals to become licensed. Not everyone thinks that’s a good idea.

A 2012 study on occupational licenses by the libertarian Institute for Justice argued that laws regulating low- and middle-income professions “can pose substantial barriers for those seeking work, particularly those most likely to aspire to these occupations—minorities, those of lesser means and those with less education.’’

The Institute for Justice put Massachusetts right in the middle of the pack in terms of professional licensing, ranking it the state with the 25th most burdensome laws. But at least one important group of people are in support of more state regulations: the people being regulated.

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It’s a pattern that may surprise outsiders. Calls for new occupational rules and regulations often come from professional associations, not state officials.

‘Elevate our profession’

Among the top ten occupations on the Institute for Justice’s “burden rank’’ in Massachusetts was massage therapist, which has only been licensed by the DPL since 2008. Applicants have to pay a $225 licensing fee, produce two letters of recommendation and spend at least 650 hours training in a licensed massage therapy school.

But Richard Wedegartner, former president of the Massachusetts chapter of the American Massage Therapy Association (MA AMTA), fought for 15 years to get those “burdensome’’ rules in place.

“We wanted fairly high regulations,’’ Wedegartner said. “You’re becoming a professional.’’

He said the massage therapists’ movement at times lost battles to critics of overregulation. In 2004, then-Governor Mitt Romney vetoed a bill that would have created a license. “Romney said he loved us. Everything was kumbaya until he started running for president,’’ and then he didn’t want be seen as expanding government, according to Wedegartner.

The impetus behind the MA AMTA’s licensing push was two-fold. One was to protect the public, the same reason the Division of Professional Licensure gives for all its actions. The other was more practical.

“We’re still an emerging profession and we thought it would elevate our profession,’’ said Wedegartner. State recognition would bring a new level of trust and respect from customers.

Plus, it’s not like the choice was between state rules and no rules. Wedegartner said before the state took over, every one of the 351 municipalities in Massachusetts basically had their own regulations concerning professionally-given massages. “It was all over the map,’’ he said, making it tough for workers and customers alike to know what was appropriate.

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Wedegartner said local massage policies could be particularly ridiculous because of the industry’s sensitive nature and unfortunate connection to prostitution, but confusing and inconsistent regulations have convinced other professions to seek state recognition, as well. It was the animating concern of Massachusetts auctioneers when they pushed to be licensed by the Division of Standards, a different agency within OCABR, in the 1980s, according to state officials.

Dale Schaetzke, the president of the Massachusetts Auctioneers Association, said state oversight has also forced auctioneering schools (of which there are only two in-state) to raise their standards. “I wish the license was tougher to get and that the law covered more of our activities actually,’’ he said.

Schaetzke, who uses his license mostly to auction off foreclosed homes, dismisses concerns that tougher occupational licensing laws shut people out. “I wouldn’t say it’s a barrier to get in,’’ he said. “There’s not that many people dying to be an auctioneer.’’

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