By Albert Downs
Hurricane Harvey may be over, but the recovery in Texas has just begun. In the short term, this means food, water, transportation and medical care, but the long journey to restoring normalcy will require reconstruction of buildings and repairing or replacing damaged electrical, plumbing and ventilation systems.
The recovery will be partially dependent on the supply of people in these and many other occupations willing and able to serve the people of Texas.
State occupational licensing laws prohibit the practice of a trade or profession in the state without explicit approval—in the form of a license—from a government agency or a government-chartered private board. This restricts people’s ability to take their jobs across state lines, which can lower overall employment and reduce economic mobility, and could limit interstate volunteering.
Some solace in this tragedy—and others like it—can be found in the outpouring of support from donors and volunteers across the country. Some skilled tradespeople wanting to extend goodwill in Texas’ time of need face no occupational licensing barrier to offering their expertise. For example, Texas has no statutory licensing requirement for roofing contractors, meaning anyone with the ability to perform that service can do so, either as a volunteer or for compensation.
However, many other occupations that will be in high demand during the recovery from Harvey, and other disasters around the country, are regulated in a way that limits the flow of necessary skills across state lines.
In some cases, state licensure rules only apply to those who receive payment for services provided. For example, the state of Nevada has an exemption for volunteer work. Nevada’s law is relatively broad when compared to laws in other states governing would-be emergency response volunteers in the construction, plumbing and electrical trades.
In Kentucky, an individual offering heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) contractor services without compensation is prohibited from doing so. However, state law offers an exemption for volunteer work using these skills when in association with a church or other religious organization.
Similar to Kentucky’s volunteer exemption, Texas has an exemption for volunteer plumbers. A higher burden, however, is imposed and limits are placed on the types of services that can be offered.
For a volunteer to perform plumbing services in Texas without a license, the individual must be associated with an organization that has been “certified by the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission to provide self-help project assistance,” and that organization is required to provide 30-day notice of the project with a detailed report, as the board may require. Additionally, this exemption only allows for volunteer work “limited to the provision of a residential potable water supply or residential sanitary sewer connection.”
The aforementioned exemptions only implicitly apply to natural disasters or other emergency response situations. Some states, however, make specific carve-outs of licensing laws to assist recovery.
In Texas, electricians—volunteer or otherwise—are eligible for a 90-day license if the governor declares a state of emergency. However, issuance of such a license still requires an application process and is subject to the determination of the director of the state Commission of Licensing and Regulation.
A broader approach to emergency response exemption from licensing laws is currently being considered in the Ohio legislature. The bill would amend state law governing all occupations such that “no out-of-state disaster business or qualifying employee shall be required to obtain a state or local license or other authorization to engage in an occupation” in the state of Ohio.
Around the country, state occupational licensing laws differ in their accounting for natural disasters and other emergency responses. Approaches include exemptions for all volunteer work or work done in association with certain organizations, temporary emergency permits, and delicensing.
For more information on NCSL’s work on occupational licensing, please visit the Occupational Licensing Project webpage.
Albert Downs is a policy specialist in NCSL's Employment, Labor and Retirement program.