Brandy McMorris was fascinated when she saw a friend braiding a girl’s hair at a high school volleyball game.
“That is so neat!” she said.
The friend offered to show her how, and McMorris, now 30, has been braiding hair and weaving in hair extensions ever since, dreaming of opening her own shop to showcase her skill at turning hair into creative patterns and shapes.
Until last year, when she learned her braiding was breaking a law with a potential penalty of up to four years in prison and a $25,000 fine. Turns out, you need 2,100 hours of training and a state cosmetology license to charge people for braiding hair.
“I said, ‘What?’ I had no idea,” McMorris said. So she stopped braiding and, with the help of a national legal rights group, set about trying to change the law and exempt hair braiding from state licensing rules.
With major tax issues and other big business-focused bills on the table at the Nebraska Legislature, there’s still interest in McMorris’ hair-braiding bill.
That’s partly because other states have been sued for having similar rules. A lawsuit and a legislative proposal in Iowa would separate braiding from state licensing requirements.
Omaha Sen. Nicole Fox said a colleague brought her the legislation, and coincidentally she heard from a constituent about the issue.
Fox said it doesn’t make sense for someone who simply braids hair to be subject to licensing provisions for professions that use chemicals or other materials that might pose health risks, such as dying hair, coloring nails, piercing the body and tattooing and branding the skin.
“It doesn’t pose a health or safety risk,” Fox said. “My thought is, this will allow people another way to get an income. It would be less regulation. It would give people a little more freedom and empowerment. It doesn’t take away consumer choice. I think it’s the right thing to do.”
Fox’s Legislative Bill 898 would exempt “natural braiding” from licensing, allowing the use of conditioners, gels, shampoos and some other “topical agents,” but not dyes or chemicals to straighten or “alter the structure of hair.” Those practices would still be covered by cosmetology regulations.
The State Department of Health and Human Services has surveyors who follow up on complaints about someone operating without a license.
The law, which dates to 1986, applies to “arranging, dressing, curling, waving, cleansing, cutting, bleaching, coloring or a similar servicing process,” which, the department says, includes braiding and working with wigs. Such work can use chemicals or techniques that “can be hazardous to human health and safety,” the law says, and inadequate sanitation can spread disease.
Licensing requires completing 2,100 hours of training, provided by cosmetology schools, with tuition and costs nearing $20,000.
Jessica Herrmann, a lobbyist for the Platte Institute for Economic Research, a conservative think tank in Omaha, said unnecessary licensing is an example of government overreach. She said few of the 2,100 hours of training are related to braiding.
“Anything that is kind of a barrier to entrepreneurs and folks earning an honest wage, that’s something we want to look at,” Herrmann said. “It’s kind of the quintessential, unneeded, burdensome regulation.”
The state has about 2,150 licensed beauty salons and 162 “body art” locations and licenses 8,100 cosmetologists, 1,300 nail technicians and about 160 cosmetology instructors, among others covered by the law.
Becky Pettigrew, who operates a nail salon, clothing store and tanning salon in Valentine, is chairwoman of the Nebraska Board of Cosmetology, Electrology, Esthetics, Nail Technology and Body Art. It oversees state licensing regulations on beauty-related occupations.
When it comes to the rules, “the biggest thing is to be careful, to be on the lookout for public safety and make sure that somebody who does not know what they’re doing isn’t out there doing things that could harm the public,” she said.
The board hasn’t taken a position on LB 898, she said, but at a meeting in September the board reaffirmed that braiding is covered by the licensing requirement.
In her campaign to change the law, McMorris had made contact with the Institute for Justice, a nonprofit legal group in Arlington, Virginia, that pursues four causes: school choice, First Amendment, private property and — in this case — economic liberty.
Nebraska and Iowa are among 21 states that apparently include braiding in laws that require extensive training and licensing, said Paul Avelar, an attorney for the institute. Fifteen other states require no licensing, and 14 states and the District of Columbia have special braiding licenses requiring fewer hours of training — a short online version in Oregon, up to 600 hours in Oklahoma.
Following the institute’s advice, McMorris wrote a letter to Nebraska’s cosmetology board, asking that braiding be exempt from the licensing requirement. The letter included wording similar to that introduced in legislation in Nebraska and Iowa.
In response, minutes of the September meeting show, board members brought up the possibility of infections if someone isn’t trained and the difficulty of having multiple limited types of licenses, rather than an overall cosmetology license.
In any case, the minutes said, the board said the licensing law covers braiding.
The bill proposed by Fox followed.
Avelar, the institute’s attorney, said the state laws reflect a lack of cultural awareness, rather than outright racial discrimination. African-American braiding is a long tradition that has spread to other ethnic groups.
“I think if most people hear about it, they intuitively get it,” Avelar said. “We think the legislation is the chance to do the right thing.”
The institute filed suit in Iowa and Missouri because previous bills weren’t advanced. Now both states are examining the issue. Changing the law, Avelar said, is “an inexpensive way of doing things in this case.”
Similar restrictions are tied to other jobs, such as making caskets, driving taxis and trimming eyebrows, he said.
Avelar said the law isn’t enforced in Nebraska, meaning hair braiders are operating outside the law, even if they don’t realize it. That makes it frustrating for entrepreneurs who want to open legitimate businesses.
Under Nebraska state law, the Health and Human Services Department investigates complaints of people operating without proper licenses, referring information to the Attorney General’s Office for those who won’t stop.
The office can issue a cease- and-desist order, and the information can be forwarded to a local county attorney if the person doesn’t stop.
“Practice of such profession or operation of such business without a credential after receiving a cease and desist order is a Class III felony,” the law says.
Class III felonies carry penalties of up to four years in prison and a $25,000 fine. Other Class III felonies include selling an aborted fetus, second-degree arson, forgery, passing a bad check for more than $5,000, criminal impersonation, failure to report elder abuse and endangering someone’s life by prescribing an unknown drug.
But the department said no cease-and-desist orders for unlicensed braiding were issued last year or so far this year.
Alesia Lester, a licensed cosmetologist who operates the Gossip Hair ’n’ Works at 5625 Ames Ave., said she supports licensing.
“I take my license very seriously,” she said. “If I had to go through all that training, others should, too. There should be some type of schooling or training or certification for that.”
People should learn about the anatomy of hair and other information that the schooling provides, Lester said.
She said there are many unlicensed braiding operations in Omaha, mostly in people’s homes, with little enforcement going on. A customer can complain to the cosmetology board about a problem with a licensed person, she said, but there’s no recourse with an unlicensed practitioner.
For McMorris, braiding hair means a chance to fulfill a dream that began when she was a teenager. “Over the years, my craft got better and better,” she said. When her husband was laid off, she decided to supplement her full-time job with income from braiding hair.
“Money was just flowing in,” she said. “It became very lucrative. I finally decided it was worth pursuing full time, make it a primary source of income. It would give me flexibility, and I could work at home at something I like. Who wouldn’t want to do that?”
She talked to a woman with the State of Nebraska to find out what license she needed to start her own shop.
“She answered that I needed a cosmetologist’s license,” McMorris said. “She told me, ‘You’re breaking the law and need to stop.’ ”
Now she braids some friends’ hair from time to time, but never for money. “I didn’t take one red cent from anyone from the day I got off the phone with her. I can’t do hair anymore.”