Natural hair braiders are now free to lock, twist, and weave hair in Idaho without the threat of criminal charges or heavy fines, thanks to a bill Gov. Brad Little signed into law last week. Prior to the new law, unlicensed hair braiding was a misdemeanor, an offense that could incur fines of up to $1,000 per infraction.
Idaho was one of just five states that did not exempt braiders from cosmetology licensing before they could lawfully earn a living. Unlike Western-style cosmetology, which uses potentially dangerous chemicals, traditional African hair braiding is all-natural and requires a completely different skillset. But while the state licensed braiding, it completely exempted other cosmetic practices, like tattooing and microblading.
Obtaining a license in cosmetology is no easy feat. In Idaho, that license requires at least 1,600 hours of classes and costs more than $16,000 on average, according to the Institute for Justice. Further rubbing salt into the wound, the state doesn’t require cosmetology schools to even teach African hair styling braiding. Nor are braiding skills tested on the practical exam.
Braiding hair in Idaho. Institute for Justice.
“I shouldn’t need the government’s permission to use a safe skill I learned when I was little to provide for my family,” said Tedy Okech, who has been braiding hair for more than 15 years. Born in Uganda, Tedy now lives in Boise, where she dreams of opening her own braiding salon.
“I have a friend who actually attended cosmetology school,” Tedy recalled. “She didn’t learn how to braid hair. In fact, they wanted her to teach the rest of the class how to braid hair.”
Represented by the Institute for Justice, Tedy, along with two other braiders, filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against Idaho’s “arbitrary, excessive, and anachronistic occupational licensing laws.”
As IJ noted in its complaint, the state’s requirements were particularly “irrational:”
“Under Idaho’s cosmetology licensing regime, someone versed in African-style hair braiding may not provide African-style hair braiding for compensation without a cosmetology license. At the same time, someone with a cosmetology license need not have any experience or skills in African-style hair braiding to provide African-style hair braiding for compensation.”
Spurred by the lawsuit, state lawmakers spent March quickly untangling regulations for braiders. It was an impressive speedrun through the legislature. Just two days after the lawsuit was filed on March 8, lawmakers introduced H. 762 to fully exempt braiders from licensure. The very next day, the Idaho House of Representatives unanimously approved the bill on March 11, sending it to the Senate, which also unanimously passed the bill less than two weeks later.
Finally, on March 28, Gov. Little signed the bill, less than three weeks after the lawsuit. With the governor’s signature, Idaho joined 31 other states that had already eliminated licensing requirements of any kind to braid hair.
Of course, occupational licensing goes far beyond hair braiders. Today, nearly 1 in 4 Idahoans needs a license to work. In Idaho, the average license for lower- and moderate-income occupations requires finishing 332 days of education and experience, paying $164 in fees, and passing an exam. As a result, extensive licensing laws cost the Gem State over $967 million each year and result in 10,000 fewer jobs, a 2018 report by the Institute for Justice found.
Meanwhile, eliminating licensing requirements can foster greater economic opportunity. Consider Mississippi, which also deregulated hair braiding in response to an IJ lawsuit. Since the law took effect in 2005, the Magnolia State has now registered more than 6,700 natural hair braiders.
“The government has no business licensing something as safe and common as hair braiding,” said Institute for Justice Attorney Caroline Grace Brothers. “With this reform, Idaho has stepped out of the way of entrepreneurs looking to start or grow braiding businesses across the state.”