License to Work: Local Governments Sidebar




New Orleans tour guide and IJ client Joycelyn Cole



This study examines occupations licensed by states, but local governments often erect similar barriers to economic opportunity.  New York City’s Department of Consumer Affairs requires licenses for at least 55 job categories,1  for example, while Chicago’s Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection issues more than 70 different types of licenses.2   This report identified 64 licensed lower-income occupations in California, but the CalGOLD website, which collects information on business permits at all levels of California government, lists 147 job categories licensed by the state or a city or county somewhere in the state.3 


Sometimes cities license occupations that states license elsewhere.  For instance, Minnesota is not one of the seven states that license tree trimmers, but its largest city, Minneapolis, does.  And the city’s license requirements are substantially more burdensome than most of the licensing states.


Tree trimmers in Minneapolis must either be or employ a “qualified arborist.”  Earning that designation requires certification from the International Society of Arboriculture or a four-year degree in forestry or a related field.4   ISA certification requires at least three years full-time experience and an exam—only a small portion of which covers tree trimming. By contrast, five of the seven states that license tree trimmers do not mandate any education or experience, requiring only fees and an exam or two.


Jim Dolphy ran headlong into Minneapolis’ tree trimmer licensing law in August 2009 as he was trimming a fallen tree after a tornado hit the area.  Since 2005, Jim had run a successful solo business trimming trees in Minneapolis and surrounding areas, but he was forced to abandon customers in the state’s largest city (and eventually his entire business) after the licensing law went into effect.  He is not an arborist, nor can he afford to hire one.  Still, in the wake of the tornado, he responded to a customer call and wound up with a $250 fine from a city inspector for trimming trees without a license.5 


Like Washington, D.C., and 20 states, New Orleans licenses tour or travel guides.  In most jurisdictions, however, the licenses are limited to those leading outdoor, hunting or fishing expeditions.  But New Orleans and the District are among a handful of cities that require licenses simply for describing city sights to customers for pay.  In New Orleans, aspiring guides must pass—with a 70 percent score or higher—a written examination, undergo a federal criminal background check, pass a drug test and more.6   D.C. also requires a test, as well as fees and a certified copy of the applicant’s police report.7 


Chicago saddles “retail computing centers” with a licensing process so onerous that it is practically impossible to maintain a license in good standing,8  and Los Angeles requires a special police permit for Internet cafés.9   New Jersey is not one of the 33 states that license auctioneers, but the city of Newark does, requiring applicants to submit a resume detailing auction work for the previous three years, letters of reference and other evidence of integrity.10   Apparently, auctioneer licenses are then granted at the discretion of city bureaucrats.  Newark also requires special licenses for shoe shiners, hand-billers (those who distribute advertising materials by hand), parking lot operators and anyone who holds a garage sale.11 


In short, just because an occupation is not licensed by a state does not mean those aspiring to join it are in the clear.  Cities and counties may add their own impediments to work, showing that this report likely significantly underestimates the extent and burden of occupational licensure.

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Minneapolis Code § 347.35.

Frommer, R. (2010). Washington, DC vs. entrepreneurs: DC’s monumental regulations stifle small businesses. Arlington, VA: Institute for Justice.

Milnikel, E., & Satterthwaite, E. (2010). Regulatory field: Home of Chicago laws. Arlington, VA: Institute for Justice.

Bindas, M. (2010). L.A. vs. small business: City of angels no heaven for entrepreneurs. Arlington, VA: Institute for Justice.

10 Rowes, J. (2010). No work in Newark: City must free entrepreneurs. Arlington, VA: Institute for Justice.

11 Rowes, 2010.

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