Wisconsin joins crowd of states regulating occupational licensure

On April 16, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker signed into law Act 278, making his state the sixth in the past two months to establish new rules on consideration of criminal record in the context of occupational and professional licensure.  Effective August 1, 2018, licensing boards in Wisconsin will be prohibited in most cases from denying or revoking a license based on arrests or pending charges, and required to justify in writing any adverse action based on conviction.  Boards will also be required to give applicants a preliminary determination as to whether a particular conviction will be disqualifying.

Indiana, Arizona, Massachusetts, Nebraska and Tennessee have all recently enacted laws regulating how licensing boards treat arrests and convictions, in some cases with strikingly similar features, as described in recent posts here and here.  The conviction-related provisions of the model occupational licensing law proposed by the Institute for Justice are reflected in almost all of these new laws, though many of them go even farther to discourage unwarranted discrimination affecting as much as 25% of the U.S. workforce.   

  Act 278 puts new teeth into the provisions of Wisconsin’s Fair Employment Act that relate to occupational and professional licensing through a new subsection titled “Discrimination in Licensing.”  See Wisc. Stat. § 111.335 (4).  A licensing agency will be required, before denying or terminating a license based on a prior conviction, to state its reasons in writing, including “a statement of how the circumstances of the offense relate to the particular licensed activity.”  An agency must also provide individuals with an opportunity to show evidence of rehabilitation and fitness to engage in the licensed activity.  Moreover, “[i]f the individual shows competent evidence of sufficient rehabilitation and fitness to perform the licensed activity . . . . the licensing agency may not refuse to license the individual or bar or terminate the individual from licensing based on that conviction.”  In addition to any evidence of rehabilitation adduced by the applicant, agencies are directed to take into account the nature and seriousness of the offense, any “mitigating circumstances or social conditions surrounding the commission of the offense,” the age of the individual at the time the offense was committed and the time elapsed since, and letters of reference by persons who have been in contact with the individual since.

Negligent hiring protections are included for any firm that hired a licensee approved pursuant to an agency determination of rehabilitation.  See Wis. Stat. § 452.139.

Act 278 tightens provisions of current law that permit denial of licensure based on a pending criminal charge, or based on a juvenile adjudication, if the offense conduct is “substantially related” to the licensed activity, by adding a proviso that the substantial relationship standard will be met in this context only if the charge or adjudication involved a “crime against life and bodily security” or a crime “against children.”

Like most of the other recently enacted occupational licensing laws, Act 278 requires agencies to make it possible for individuals to obtain a preliminary determination as to whether they would be disqualified from obtaining a license due to a prior conviction, a determination that is binding on the agency in connection with a formal application. A fee may be charged to cover the cost of processing. This provision comes straight from the model occupational licensing law proposed by the Institute for Justice, discussed in our post of April 18.

Finally, each licensing agency must also publish on its Internet site a document indicating the offenses or kinds of offenses that may result in denial or termination of a license.

The provisions of Wisconsin’s Fair Employment Act are further elaborated in the Wisconsin profile from the Restoration of Rights Project.