Unions kill bill to help skilled immigrants find work

By TODD MYERS  | 
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Feb 12, 2020

Consider the true stories of two immigrants who arrived in the U.S.

One is a manicurist from Vietnam. She not only has talent, but major cosmetics companies flew her to Paris to train other manicurists. When she arrived in Washington state, however, she found it is illegal for her to serve customers without spending thousands of dollars and 600 hours on rudimentary training to get the required occupational license.

Compare that to another Vietnamese immigrant who is an engineer. For him, the requirement to work in Washington state was that he pass a basic competency test.

The inequity for these two real-life immigrants should be obvious to anyone. There are other examples.

It took fewer than 50 hours for me to receive my private pilot’s license. After 50 hours I could rent an airplane at Boeing Field, grab a friend or two, and fly over Seattle. I don’t dismiss the skill involved in being a manicurist, but, if the concern is health and safety, it is unclear why pilots and engineers can prove competence, but even experienced manicurists have to spend hundreds of hours independent of their demonstrated skill.

A report released by the Obama Administration in 2015 makes it clear that excessive requirements are bad for both immigrants and consumers. They write, “Licensing requirements that prevent qualified immigrants from finding employment in their chosen profession affect not only the immigrant workers themselves, but also consumers.  Removing such requirements has the potential to improve access to services, especially among those at the middle and lower-end of the income distribution.”

There is a bill to fix this inequity and allow skilled immigrants and people from other states to receive an occupational license by demonstrating competence, rather than making them waste time and money to learn nothing. House Bill 2355 passed out of the Committee on Consumer Protection and Business unanimously. It was just killed, however, in the House Appropriations Committee, thanks to opposition from state labor unions.

A representative of the Federation of State Employees union spent one minute testifying against the bill at last Saturday’s House Appropriations committee meeting. The testimony was a poor attempt to cover for the real motive of the unions, which is to reduce access to jobs that the unions want to control.

The union spokesperson began with the statement that “we should not be outsourcing our occupational licensing to other states.” This has nothing to do with the legislation. The bill would, in fact, be a competence-based assessment of skills based on Washington’s existing standards. So, the first words out of her mouth were completely inaccurate.

The second sentence of the testimony was, “We have carefully constructed our licensing requirements in this state.” Really? There is no requirement to become a tattoo artist in Washington. Is that carefully constructed compared to the 600 hours required by a manicurist? This is obviously nonsense. There is no evidence that existing standards are optimal.

Her third sentence was, “competency does not necessarily equal understanding.” Again, this is meaningless. The definition of competence assumes understanding. That is literally the definition. The definition of competency is “possession of sufficient knowledge or skill.” Her rhetoric is incoherent.

Finally, the union representative claimed licensure should be “based on the health, safety, and quality considerations needed to best protect the public interest.” This is fine, but the current system does not achieve this goal.

The Obama Administration report specifically notes that licensing does not guarantee health and safety for customers. The report notes, “Overall, the empirical research does not find large improvements in quality or health and safety from more stringent licensing. In fact, in only two out of the 12 studies was greater licensing associated with quality improvements.”

If health and safety are truly the reason for occupational licensing, requiring a certain number of hours does not achieve those goals.

The truth is that health and safety are not the main reason we have occupational licenses. As the Obama Administration report notes, “immigrants must often complete duplicative and costly requirements in order to acquire a U.S. license in their chosen career. In many cases, the training or experience that these immigrants acquired overseas does not count toward fulfilling the relevant licensing requirements.” This is not an accident. The goal of the unions is to lock competitors out of jobs, creating a shortage of workers to drive prices up.

The arguments of the State Federation of Employees and the State Labor Council unions are incorrect and incoherent. They are not being honest about their motivation, so they to say incomprehensible things like “competency does not necessarily equal understanding.”

The unions are right to hide their real intentions because the reality of their opposition is that it would harm many of the least-fortunate, including immigrants and workers looking to find a skilled job.