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Jun 26, 9:31 AM EDT

Women to drop lawsuit on hair braiding in Iowa amid new law


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AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) -- Two women challenging Iowa's regulation on African-style hair braiding plan to drop a lawsuit they filed last year because of an upcoming change in state law, a move that highlights occupational licensing requirements around the country that research show can be burdensome to workers.

The lawsuit filed in district court by Aicheria Bell and Achan Agit against the state's cosmetology board will be dismissed once new legislation takes effect Friday, said Meagan Forbes, an attorney with the Institute for Justice, a Virginia-based law firm representing the women. The pending law will allow people to do natural hair braiding in Iowa without a cosmetology license, which requires 2,100 hours of training that is mostly unrelated to braiding.

"It's a major victory for Aicheria and Achan and for African-style hair braiders across the state," Forbes said.

The Iowa Legislature in recent years has considered changing the rules, but never approved a bill. Late in the last session, the issue arose again when language was added to a budget bill that removed the training requirement but required natural hair braiders to take one hour of safety and sanitation curriculum annually and be subject to inspection.

Gov. Terry Branstad removed those stipulations in a veto, resulting in completely deregulating the work.

"Licensing and regulations should only be mandated when necessary to serve public health or safety. Natural hair braiding does not require government mandates, regulations, or licensing," he said in a veto message.

Iowa will join roughly 20 states that exclude natural hair braiding from the type of regulation that critics say can be difficult for people in African-American and African immigrant communities because of time and cost. The Institute for Justice has led a combination of legal and legislative efforts in more than half of those states.

Bell, 36, of Des Moines, currently braids hair at a barber shop and doesn't have a license because she argues cosmetology school tuition can top $20,000. She thinks the lawsuit prompted the legislation.

"It wasn't until the lawsuit that (the state of Iowa) really felt the pressure to understand how they're affecting our communities," she said.

Agit, a 36-year-old immigrant from South Sudan who now lives in Des Moines, began braiding hair on her dolls as a child. She has been working without a license in her apartment but limited her services to family and close friends because some customers over the years refused to pay full price by threatening to report her.

Sitting on her couch last week as she braided cornrows onto a neighbor's 9-year-old daughter, Agit became emotional, her voice breaking as she described her hope of opening her own business.

"This means a lot to me," she said. "I'm going to have a future."

Still, some question the change.

Trav'i Ford, a 37-year-old Des Moines barber, completed a similar 2,100 hours of training before getting his license, and said many of his licensed peers at barber shops and hair salons are frustrated with the new law. Ford agrees a hair braider working from home shouldn't need a license, but he asked, "How can they be in a place of business, a professional business, without a license, when we have to have a license?"

Bell said she understood Ford's argument, but she also emphasized the frustration in getting training that doesn't focus on braiding.

The issue isn't limited to hair braiding.

A White House report issued last year found that the number of U.S. workers required to hold a state license to do their jobs has soared five-fold since the 1950s. Such requirements can reduce employment opportunities and lower wages for workers, the report found.

More than 30 percent of Iowa's workforce needs occupational licensing requirements to do their jobs, according to the same report. That's the highest percentage in the country.

Branstad referenced the issue in his veto message, saying he'll work with the Legislature, "to find common sense solutions in reducing unnecessary regulatory burdens and licensing fees on hardworking Iowans."

Bell hopes she can open her own business, and she said the experience has prompted her to push for deregulation elsewhere. She is part of a network of hair braiders promoting and attending rallies around the country to talk about the issue.

"This is something that can come back in our communities and we can own and we can create industries for our kids," she said.

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