Hair braiders trying to weave success face licensing snarls

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BOSTON – For Gladys Freeman, an African immigrant, her skill at braiding hair in traditional ways gave her the key to charting her own path in America.

Freeman, who came to the area 18 years ago from Sierra Leone, owns and operates Dazzles Hair Salon on Washington Street in Roslindale, where she was found on one of April’s first sunny mornings, among family and friends who had gathered in her shop as she began work. She specializes in all types of hair styling and braiding, including weaves, up-dos, short hair, hair care.

But it didn’t come easily. To start down the path of self-employed small business operator, Freeman had to get a license from the Massachusetts Board of Registration of Cosmetologist. And to do that, she had to go to school and meet a host of requirements to offer a service that she already knew how to provide.

“To open any business is a challenge,” said Freeman, a who formerly worked as a hair-braiding stylist before going to cosmetology school to get the license she needed to open her own salon. “I wanted to be able to do all services for my customers.”

Natural African hair braiding, steeped in centuries of African culture, has helped many entrepreneurial women work toward economic independence. Some are immigrants, like Freeman, and some learned traditional techniques from relatives. Some started their braiding shops in their homes while others set up in storefront locations.

In Greater Boston, there are more than two-dozen African-style braiding shops where no other services are offered. Still, the braiders are considered hair stylists under state rules and are required to complete the same training as would-be cosmetologists. That includes classes on hair care and design, from shampooing and conditioning to cutting, coloring, highlighting, as well as skin care, hygiene nail care. A lot of things, in other words, that have little to do with braiding.

“Braiding falls under the cosmetology license,” said Michelle McKenna, manager of the New England Hair Academy in Malden. She said such a license lets the holder provide services beyond hair braiding, although that skill is tested as well. But getting that license requires a significant commitment of time and money.

Massachusetts requires a cosmetology license candidate to have 233 days of education, pass two exams that cost $172 in fees and amass 1,000 hours of work experience, typically obtained as an unpaid intern. There is no minimum age or level of general education required. By comparison, all the other New England states call for 350 days of training and set educational attainment minimums.

For Julianne Moore, who once worked for Freeman at Dazzles, becoming a hair stylist took a lot of work and a major financial commitment. It involved much more than being a hair braider.

“You have to make that big sacrifice” to get a license, Moore said. She’s still paying off a $12,000 debt she took on to attend Empire Beauty School in Boston and work for a year as an unpaid intern. “You don’t have to do that for braiding.”

Moore said that there are a lot of regulations that hair-styling salons have to follow that braiding shops can ignore, because they don’t use chemicals or wash hair.

“I’ve seen the struggle and it’s a lot of work to get here,” Moore said about reaching Freeman’s position of owning her own salon. Referring to the myriad of rules and regulations, she added, “no business owner wants that pressure on their back.”

For Aisha, an African immigrant who owns the bustling Rose African Hair Braiding salon on Blue Hill Avenue in Mattapan, opening the shop meant going to school to get a license, even though she learned braiding in her native land.

“You have to know how to braid first, in case your workers aren’t here,” Aisha said about needed skills and licenses. “They didn’t teach hair braiding during school.”

Some say the requirements to offer hair-braiding services in states like Massachusetts go too far and are at minimum unnecessary and at worst, discriminatory. Some aggrieved braiders have challenged state licensing laws in court, while others have appealed to lawmakers for relief. In Kentucky, braiders won one such battle earlier this month, according to the Institute for Justice, a libertarian public-interest law firm in Arlington, Virginia.

The organization points to the regulations, which in some states are far more burdensome than in Massachusetts, as examples of regulatory overreach.

Rules and licensing requirements for hair braiders “are a great example of unreasonable arbitrary regulation that hurts people’s ability to support themselves and their family,” said Paul Avelar, a senior lawyer with the institute. For hair braiding, he said, “there are no chemicals, no heat, no cutting. Braiding is literally something that children know how to do.”

Nationwide, the average cosmetologist must complete 372 days of classes, two exams and pay $142 for a license application, making it the fourth most-regulated occupation in the country, institute research shows. The institute says hair stylists are far from the only occupational group to have become snarled by government red tape. Not long after World War II, fewer than 5 percent of U.S. workers needed some kind of occupational license, a proportion that swelled to  29 percent by 2006, according to researchers from Princeton University and the University of Wisconsin.

“It seems that hair braiding shouldn’t require a license just to braid hair, as Massachusetts shows, there are still these states that make it difficult for braiders,” Avelar said. Yet Massachusetts ranks as the least burdensome state when it comes to obtaining a cosmetology license, according to institute figures on minimum age requirements, fees, length of training, minimum education and exams.

But in terms of hair braiding, the state has heavier mandates than 32 others, Avelar said. Still, it’s not as demanding as Iowa and South Dakota, which require 2,100 hours of training. Like Kentucky, states including Colorado and Maine recently exempted hair braiders from cosmetology regulations, the institute said.

O*, a website that compiles occupational information, says cosmetologists, hairdressers, and hair stylists in Massachusetts earned $28,200 in 2013 on average, including fees and tips. Income at that level can make it hard to amass enough capital to start a new salon, let alone pay off the costs of education required for a license.

At Fadil Hair Braiding in Cambridge, a small braiding shop that specializes in weaves and cornrows, workers said it can take anywhere from 30 minutes to five hours to provide the desired look for clients. They declined to give their names.

One, relaxing on a couch during a break, said she learned how to braid from friends and relatives beginning when she was just five years old. While she attends a local college to study business, working at the shop part-time is fun, she said.

“It’s nice,” she said. “I love making people beautiful so I enjoy what I do.”

Staff writer Kara Bettis contributed to this report. Contact Beth Treffeisen at [email protected].