Pennsylvania expands access to 255 licensed occupations for people with a record

On July 1, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf signed into law an expansive new regulation of the state’s occupational licensing process, giving the agencies that control access to 255 occupations detailed new standards for considering criminal records in the licensing process.  Pennsylvania has not addressed these issues on a state-wide basis since the 1970’s, and with proper implementation the new law promises a path to the middle class for skilled individuals whose career prospects might otherwise be limited.

While Pennsylvania’s law is by far the most ambitious one of its kind passed this year, five other states have also passed laws since the beginning of 2020 regulating consideration of criminal record in occupational licensing.  Two were states that previously had no general law governing this issue (Idaho and Missouri) and three were states that extended laws passed in recent years (Iowa, Utah and West Virginia).

Pennsylvania’s new law is analyzed in detail below.  The provisions of the other five states’ new licensing laws are summarized briefly at the end of the post, and the laws of all six states are written up in greater detail in the relevant state profiles in the Restoration of Rights Project.

Pennsylvania’s new occupational licensing law

Pennsylvania’s new law (SB637) is very strong substantively.  To summarize, it supersedes provisions in existing law that provide for “good moral character” criteria for certain licenses, as well as laws that mandate disqualification, including 10-year bars that apply in numerous health-related licensing schemes.  It requires each licensing agency to identify offenses that may be disqualifying as “directly related” to the occupation, pursuant to a notice-and-comment rule-making process.  If an offense is not considered “directly related,” the new law mandates an individualized assessment of each applicant pursuant to detailed criteria that emphasize public safety.  It gives individuals recently released from prison a chance to demonstrate their abilities through offering “restricted” licenses to those who cannot immediately demonstrate fitness under the law’s new standards.  Finally, it expands the category of records that may not be considered to include convictions that are subject to an order of “limited access.”  At the same time, unlike recent licensing reforms in some other states, it does not rule out consideration of dated or minor convictions.

The new law is not as strong from a procedural standpoint as some other recent licensing reforms, and its due process provisions are not well-developed.  For example, it does not require licensing agencies to defend record-related denials with written reasons, nor does it provide for an administrative appeal, so that applicants who have been denied a license must seek redress in the courts through the state’s administrative procedure act.  In this respect, disappointed applicants seeking to  challenge an agency decision are in no better position under this 2020 law than disappointed applicants for employment under Pennsylvania’s 1980 law, which also has strong standards but no enforcement mechanism.

It is possible that the legislature decided to wait to see how licensing agencies perform under the new substantive criteria before imposing new procedural requirements.  As an interim accountability measure, the new law includes a requirement that each agency make detailed statistical reports to the legislature after two years.  If the agencies proceed with good will to implement the new criteria, many individuals previously excluded should benefit.

As background, in 2017 Governor Tom Wolf directed the Bureau of Professional and Occupational Affairs (BPOA) in the Department of State to study several licensing-related issues in Pennsylvania, including how licensees are disciplined, how licenses from other jurisdictions are considered, and how a criminal record operates to deny many licenses either by operation of law or because of unaccountable discretionary decisions.  The resulting report (Review of State Occupational and Professional Licensure Board Requirements) found a number of flaws in how people with criminal records are treated in the licensing process:

Criminal history bans also vary from board to board, with significant bans set in statute for most healthcare-related occupations. Lastly, the requirement to demonstrate “good moral character” is loosely defined and while this administration has provided guidance through policy statements regarding the use and review of criminal histories there is the potential for it to be applied unevenly across boards. The governor and administration officials should examine the impact of criminal history bans and “good moral character” requirements on ensuring Pennsylvania residents are able to engage in the workforce without unnecessary barriers.

The report found that, particularly with respect to health-related licenses, “[a]mong the regional comparison group, Pennsylvania is an outlier in applying an automatic criminal history licensure ban.”  See report at p. 25, also listing professions that have a 10-year bar.  The report made a number of recommendations which provided new organization for the 29 agencies and commissions that regulate 255 licensure types, a single disciplinary structure, and licensure by endorsement for people with out-of-state licenses.  Most importantly for our purposes, the report made a number of recommendations related to criminal records that two years later have now made their way into SB637.

The new law applies to the 29 licensing agencies under BPOA jurisdiction, and includes architects, pharmacists, veterinarians, podiatrists, psychologists, physicians, nurses, barbers and cosmetologists, occupational therapists, nail technicians, and engineers.  Building trades requiring a license, teachers, and lawyers are not covered.

Under preexisting law, licensing agencies “may consider convictions of the applicant of crimes but the convictions shall not preclude the issuance of a license, certificate, registration or permit.” 18 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 9124(a).  Licensing agencies may not consider records of arrest if there was no conviction of a crime based on the arrest; convictions which have been annulled or expunged; convictions of a summary offense; convictions for which the individual had received a pardon from the Governor; or “convictions which do not relate to the applicant’s suitability for the license, certificate, registration or permit.”  § 9124(b)(2).  Agencies are free to suspend or revoke a license because of a felony conviction, or where the applicant was convicted of “a misdemeanor which relates to the trade, occupation or profession for which the license, certificate, registration or permit is sought.”  § 9124(c).

SB637 established in Title 63 of the Pennsylvania statutes a new Chapter 31 to establish standards for consideration of criminal record in licensing.  The new law amends existing § 9124(a) to add to records that may not be considered any that have been made subject to limited access, including by the state’s automated “clean slate” process.  It also specifically supersedes any other provision of law that disqualifies an individual for a license or provides for “good moral character” findings.  § 3113(a).  It then establishes in §§ 3113(b) and (c) an elaborate two-stage inquiry to determine qualification for licensure:

    • First, the agency must determine, considering a list of potentially disqualifying crimes developed through a notice-and-comment process under § 3117, whether there is a “direct relationship” between the applicant’s criminal record and the profession. (“Direct relationship is defined in § 3102 as having “a direct bearing on the fitness or bearing on the fitness or ability to perform one or more of the duties of responsibility necessarily related to the profession trade or occupation”).  § 3113(b)
    • Second, if there is not such a direct relationship, the agency must make an “individualized assessment” as to whether licensing the individual would pose a public safety risk, as determined under a long list of specified factors.  § 3113(c).

Section 3113(d) makes clear that those convicted of sexual offenses may not qualify for health-related licenses, and § 3113(e) establishes a separate test for offenses involving violence.

Additional features of the new law:

    • § 3114 prohibits consideration of juvenile adjudications (this is in addition to the various exclusions in § 9124(a) above for non-conviction records, and records of convictions that have been expunged or sealed);
    • § 3112 authorizes restricted licenses for applicants who cannot immediately demonstrate fitness due to a criminal conviction, §§ 3112 (barbers and cosmetologists) and 3112.1 (all other occupations), with various standards for demonstrating “fitness” that relate to conduct in prison and supervision, and “a commitment to living a law-abiding life,” §§ 3112(B) and 3112.1(B);
    • § 3115 provides for a “preliminary determination” for applicants considering undergoing training for a license, which is binding unless the crime is one on the list of crimes “directly related,” in which case it may be subject to further inquiry when a formal application is filed;
    • § 3116 provides for issuance of a best practices guide;
    • § 3117 provides for a process (involving the business community as well as the boards) for identifying crimes that will be presumptively considered “directly related” for each profession, and for publishing them for public comment.

Section 3118 provides for a report to the legislature within two years by the Secretary of the Commonwealth on the implementation of each section of the act, and statistical report on applications received, granted and denied under each section of the act.  Effective date: Sections 3112 through 3115 are effective at end of 2020, the rest are effective immediately.

Other new occupational licensing laws enacted in 2020

Idaho: As of 2020, licensing agencies must determine whether a person’s criminal record is “currently relevant to the applicant’s fitness” to engage in the occupation, using a multi-factor test; vague terms like “moral character” are prohibited.  Individuals may apply for a non-binding preliminary determination. SB1351

Iowa: A 2020 general licensing law enacted a direct relationship standard, defined rehabilitation broadly (and presumed it after 5 years for most crimes), provided for a preliminary determination, and provided for strong due process protections.   HF2627.  Previously, the only licenses for which consideration of criminal records was limited were in trades taught in the state’s prisons (e.g., electrician, plumber, mechanical, contractor, and barbering licenses).

Missouri: The 2020 Fresh Start Act requires licensing agencies to apply a “direct relationship” standard, and provides that they may not deny a license “solely” because an applicant has a felony conviction.  Licensing agencies may consider a conviction “some evidence of an absence of good moral character,” but they must also consider the nature and date of the crime, as well as conduct after the conviction.  A license may not be denied “primarily” because of a conviction that was pardoned, and expunged records may be grounds for denial of some licenses involving sensitive employment.  HB2046.

Utah: An occupational licensing agency may not disqualify based on conviction unless it is “substantially related” to the occupation, and applicants must be given individualized consideration pursuant to a multi-factor test, with an appeal in the event of denial.  Non-convictions, and most convictions after seven conviction-free years may not be considered.  Potential applicants may apply for a preliminary determination as to whether their criminal history will be disqualifying.  SB201.

West Virginia: Licensing agencies may not disqualify an applicant because of a conviction unless it has a “rational nexus” to the desired occupation, determined by specified standards including seriousness of crime, passage of time, and evidence of rehabilitation.  Agencies are not required to give reasons for denial, but they are authorized to give potential candidates a preliminary determination respecting likely disqualification.  An applicant who is denied licensure may reapply after 5 years (with violent and sexual crimes subject to a longer period). HR4352, HR4353.