female electrician working on a jobsite

Electrical work is one of numerous fields in which licensure requirements vary by state.

States Move Closer to Universal Occupational Licenses

By Iris Hentze | March 11, 2021 | State Legislatures News

Universal licensure laws are gaining steam in state legislatures this year. Also known as recognition laws, they authorize states to accept, or “recognize,” certain occupational licenses granted by other states, giving workers greater professional mobility. Eleven states have enacted universal licensing legislation since 2019, with South Dakota and Wyoming joining the list this year and other legislatures debating similar measures.

Although these bills were gaining momentum before last year, the pandemic has exacerbated the need for certain professionals, especially in health care, to practice across state lines. Universal licensing provides one solution to the problems that can arise when a worker licensed in one state wishes to perform a job across state lines or move to another state with its own licensing requirements.

Nearly 1 in 4 workers in the U.S. performs a job that requires a professional license. State legislatures and regulatory bodies work together to determine the education and training requirements needed in various professions, from demonstrating how to install electrical wiring safely to providing the right health services to patients. Because each state has the authority to determine its own licensing rules and requirements, license-holders can face barriers to working outside their home states.

While states have been working on this issue through reciprocity agreements and compacts for quite some time, universal licensure is the newest approach to improving worker mobility.

Universal but Unique

When policymakers pass such laws, they are promising to recognize the occupational or professional license granted to a worker in another state as valid in their own. Although the laws are described as “universal,” each state—as with most policies—is adopting a slightly different approach. Since universal licensure does not equate to automatic licensure, licensed workers must still go through an application process when seeking work in a “universal” state. But the process is shorter for licensed workers than it is for those seeking a license for the first time. And all 11 states that passed recognition legislation outline some common requirements that applicants must meet before getting work.

Being licensed and in good standing with your home licensing board are just two of the common requirements for recognition. Additionally, applicants must pay applicable fees and often are required to undergo background checks. These factors hold true for Wyoming’s SB 18, which passed last month, and Idaho’s legislation from 2020.

Despite the common themes, there are some important differences in the laws. South Dakota’s bill, which passed last month, requires that the license an applicant holds in his or her home jurisdiction be substantially equivalent to or exceed its own requirements.

This “substantially equivalent” language is common and allows workers to manage the sometimes major differences that can exist in license requirements between two states. In lieu of substantial equivalency, some states are addressing differences in requirements by including considerations for scope of practice. For example, the bill currently under consideration in Oklahoma’s legislature specifies that an applicant is eligible only if he or she is currently licensed or certified by another state to work in an occupation with a similar scope of practice. Oklahoma’s legislation also differs in that it would allow individuals coming from a state that does not currently license certain occupations to seek universal licensure if they can provide proof that they have worked in a job with a similar scope of practice for a certain amount of time.

Residency Rules

Finally, states’ universal licensure laws differ on the question of residency. Arizona’s 2019 bill, for example, requires applicants to establish residency in the state to be eligible for a license. Colorado, Missouri and Utah, on the other hand, do not require applicants to establish residency.

Passed in 11 states since 2019, recognition bills have been introduced but failed in six states and currently are under consideration in three more. While universal licensure isn’t automatic or without requirements for the applicant, it does provide an expedited pathway to broader work opportunities for those already licensed. In this way, universal licensure is a new twist on the ways states have worked to ease barriers to licensed occupations.

For a more in-depth look at universal licensure, read this recent LegisBrief on the topic.

Iris Hentze is a policy specialist in NCSL’s Employment, Labor and Retirement Program.

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