Steve Cooksey of Gaston County, thought he was just helping diabetics. David N. Cox of Raleigh thought he was helping his neighbors.
But both North Carolinians found that they had run afoul of one of the most widespread yet least-discussed barriers to creating jobs and pursing one’s dreams: occupational licensing. Doing unlicensed business, or even in some cases doing work for free, in a licensed profession is typically illegal and can lead to fines or even criminal prosecution.
Even people engaging in their right to discuss issues can get tangled up in the licensing trap. According to the News & Observer, Cox and a group of neighbors wanted the city to put in two traffic lights. Cox, with the North Raleigh Coalition of Homeowners’ Associations, produced an eight-page document that included maps, diagrams and traffic projections.
But Kevin Lacy of the state Department of Transportation demanded that the state Board of Examiners for Engineers and Surveyors investigate Cox because the report looked like “engineering-level work” by a person not licensed as a professional engineer.
Some engineers have defended the inquiry. Lacy said his actions were in no way intended to stifle free speech. The board decided that while an unlicensed act of engineering was committed, they could not determine who had actually performed the work, as Mr. Cox refused to answer questions at the hearing and the work itself was unsigned.
“All we ever tried to do was express our view about this,” Cox said. “We never expected something like this. We think it’s wrong. We’re just trying to make our neighborhood safe.”
The vast expansion of occupation licensing (as detailed in Part 1) has meant more and more restrictions on what people can and cannot do. Just how far licensing has extended its reach is shown by Cooksey and his blog, on which he tells his personal story of fighting diabetes with a low-carbohydrate diet. As he put it in a post, he underwent scrutiny by a state board because “I tell people to eat like I do!!!! …without a license!! Horrors!!!”
He says his online advocacy earned him a polite but firm call from an official from the North Carolina Board of Dietetics/Nutrition. “She stated that I, as a non-licensed person could provide NO dietary or nutritional advice… period. It makes no difference if I am giving the advice away or if it’s for a fee.”
More of the story is posted at www.diabetes-warrior.net. As of this writing, Cooksey’s case had not been resolved. But it’s a safe bet that many other people in North Carolina have been caught in the bog of licensing, often for little discernable reason.
These type of interventions are hardly unusual with occupational licensing. A vast majority of licensing boards are comprised solely of members of the occupation they regulate. This often leads to a tendency for the board to protect current licensees while spending most of their investigative energy on ferreting out unlicensed operators.
A particularly egregious case arose when the NC Locksmith Licensing Board spent tens of thousands of dollars to hire a private investigator to find and pursue unlicensed locksmiths, even though no complaints were received from the public. The investigator opened 55 cases, all of which were for operating without a license or hiring unlicensed people, while the board took no disciplinary action against licensed practitioners of any sort. At the same time the Board was actively lobbying to increase penalties for unlicensed work and to close exemptions for towing and lockout services, as well as to raise license fees in order to pay for the investigations, which helped to put the board in the hole by almost $64,000.
Coming Soon: Held Back by Red Tape Part III: Solutions for NC