Lawsuit: Pa. should end ‘good moral character’ requirement for cosmetology licenses

The lawsuit filed by The Institute for Justice argues the requirement creates employment barriers for ex-offenders.

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Courtney Haveman developed a passion for skin care while working at a tanning salon.

The 26-year-old Yardley resident attended the Bucks County School of Beauty to become an esthetician. She wanted to give facials, do waxing, and apply makeup on clients. A salon offered to give her a job once she received her cosmetology license.

“As soon as I was able to take the test and receive my license, I would be able to start immediately and unfortunately, that never happened and it was very humiliating,” Haveman said.

When Haveman applied for a license, she was open about her criminal record. She had been convicted of driving under the influence, illegal possession of drug paraphernalia, and two counts of simple assault and disorderly conduct — all misdemeanors.

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But the Pennsylvania’s Board of Cosmetology denied Haveman her license, saying she “may not be of sufficient good moral character.”

Haveman tried to appeal.

“I wrote a personal, heartfelt letter that described who I was as a person and that I changed my life around,” said Haveman, who is enrolled in Alcoholics Anonymous. “And I had people in the 12-step fellowship write letter of words of encouragement.”

The board again denied her a license, leaving Haveman unable to take the job waiting for her.

Haveman is one of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed against the state of Pennsylvania Tuesday by The Institute for Justice, which argues that requiring those seeking cosmetology licenses to be “of good moral character” is unfair, unconstitutional and makes it more difficult for people with criminal backgrounds to move on in their lives.

Amanda Spillane, of Philadelphia, another plaintiff in the case also lost out on a cosmetology license because of her criminal history, though her background included felonies.

Between 2005 and 2011, Spillane was convicted of several crimes, including robbery, simple assault, a DUI, use and possession of drug paraphernalia, thefts and burglaries.

After being released from prison, Spillane was able to get full-time work at McDonald’s, and spent nights attending cosmetology school.

“It’s something I’ve always been interested in,” Spillane said. “When I was in jail, they actually offered it, and when I got back out, I went back and finished.”

When the board denied her license, she traveled to Harrisburg with her father to appeal.

“They wanted me to prove that I had good moral character, so I brought all of my certificates of rehabilitation I did, letters of recommendation from the school and people I know and they just wanted more,” Spillane said. “They didn’t think it was enough.”

Her appeal fell short.

Common requirement

Twenty-three of Pennsylvania’s 29 licensing boards require applicants to have “good moral character.” The nonprofit Institute of Justice claims this definition is vague and creates employment barriers for ex-offenders.

“It’s clear that this restriction just doesn’t make any sense,” Andrew Ward, an attorney with the Institute for Justice. “Good character has nothing to do with cutting hair and painting nails.”

Ward also points out that Pennsylvania does not require barbers to show “good moral character” when applying for state licenses.

“There is a lot of overlap between the work that barbers do and the work that cosmetologists do,” Ward said. “You know they’re both touching the skin and the hair of the head, but you need good moral character to tweeze a hair, but you don’t need it to shave one.”

In 2017, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf commissioned a review of occupational licensing board requirements. The report, released in June, admitted “good moral character is loosely defined” and “there is potential for it to be applied unevenly across boards.”

State officials overseeing licensing did not have numbers on how many people have been denied for “good moral character,” but did provide details on the process.

They say boards take into consideration the seriousness of the person’s criminal history, when those crimes were committed, as well as the ages of the perpetrators and the victims when considering an application. They also weigh whether crimes touch on the kind of work an applicant would be doing.

The state said boards also take time to hear people out, listening to references and evidence that they have turned over a new leaf.

Aginah Carter-Shabazz, a former member of Pennsylvania’s State Board of Cosmetology, said she understands licensing laws are in place to protect the public, but the standard of “good moral character” has been misapplied.

“Sometimes in doing that you can deny qualified people for reasons that may be entirely unrelated to the responsibilities of the job,” Carter-Shabazz said. “It doesn’t work.”

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