Though Alabama's motto, as often stated by Gov. Kay Ivey, is "Alabama is open for business," occupational licensing is making it difficult and expensive for many workers to join the labor force in the Yellowhammer State.

Various boards across Alabama are in charge of granting or withholding occupational licenses for certain businesses, licenses which are attained through testing, education, inspection and other standards on top of regular fees and possible fines.

Boards make money off of licensing and continued education fees. An analysis by the Alabama Policy Institute showed 151 occupations in Alabama are licensed, and over 432,000 workers are working under those licenses. API estimated the amount made off of initial occupational licenses to be around $122 million, while renewals were worth about $45 million. However, the money spent on continuing education, which is required for a license, is around $243 million annually.

The idea of occupational licensing may have been more feasible in the past to ensure the safety of both the consumer and business. But now some state lawmakers believe things have gotten out of hand in Alabama and have prevented people, such as athletic trainers, auctioneers, dry cleaners and landscapers, who already start out making a minimum income, from entering the workforce.

Some of the boards in the state include the Alabama Board of Cosmetology,  the Alabama Board of Funeral Service, the Alabama Board of Dental Examiners, the Alabama Board of Heating and Air Conditioning Contractors and the Alabama Board of Massage Therapy. Some boards employ their own management and executives, while others hire private companies to manage their operations, such as administration, licensing and application processes, investigations, regulations and testing.

Keith Warren owns Warren & Company Management Solutions, a private entity that manages boards and commissions. Warren & Company has been in operation since 1997 and is contracted with 15 boards. Warren himself is the executive director of each board. With 14 employees, Warren & Company handles operations with the consumer in mind Warren told 1819 News.

"This is a consumer protection agency," Warren said. "I mean, we are here to protect the consumer. Any opportunity we have, if someone has a recommendation of doing anything better or streamlining a process, we are always open to suggestions, and we will work with anyone."

Employees of Warren & Company perform inspections on their own and relay information to the boards. They take complaints, investigate them and offer advice.

Warren said all of his inspectors are retired law enforcement. Those inspectors go through ongoing training through state and national organizations of state boards, but they still have to work with local, state or federal law enforcement anytime a criminal issue arises.

Warren & Company manages The Alabama Board of Massage Therapy and recently increased fees with the help of a bill passed during the 2022 Legislative Session.

"The bill passed back in 2022 increased disciplinary fines. It increased the licensing caps because the board needed more funds to operate and provide more investigators and inspectors out in the field inspecting massage establishments," said Warren. "Many disguised themselves as massage therapists, and they are practicing illegal types of businesses. Some are human trafficking, some are prostitution, and they should not be allowed to disguise themselves as a massage therapy business when they are offering illegal services to the public."

However, some massage therapy business owners have expressed concerns over how a private company manages the board and how the bill was passed. They don't believe they should pay more because of criminal activity they are not involved in.

Kristie Williams, who owns Alabama Therapeutic Massage in Cullman and Arley, told 1819 News the increased fees only punished legitimate massage business owners at a time that was already challenging.

"During the COVID shutdown, I lost childcare, and I have a four-year-old," said Williams. "At that time, the board and Warren pretty much made us feel like they weren't meeting because of COVID and they were short-staffed, so they weren't doing anything. We had no support from them whatsoever as far as what standards we should practice in our clinics and policies because we were in close contact. So, they were silent from 2020 until 2022. We heard nothing — no meeting minutes. Not the first meeting minutes were posted. No disciplinary actions were posted, which is, if you want to receive a massage and you want to know if your massage therapist has ever been convicted of anything, you can look this up, and the list is there. As an employer, I like to look at those before I hire, but for two years, we heard nothing."

Williams has owned her business for 12 years and is also an educator. She is a licensed massage therapist and board certified through the National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork (NCBTMB). She is a board-certified educator and serves as director of Government Relations for the United States Organization of Licensed Massage Therapists.

The law, which went into effect on July 1, 2022, also required establishments to have a licensed massage therapist registered with the board, required background checks for establishment owners that are not licensed, added an initial inspection requirement for all out-of-state owners, and added to continuous education standards. Warren said when considering the bill, the board was thinking about the overall benefit to the people.

"The public should be aware of what businesses are legitimate and which ones are not, and that's our job to shut down those that are not legitimate," Warren explained. "It was the fee increase that was a problem [for business owners]. The massage therapist renewal went from $100 for two years to $200, the establishment renewal stayed the same. We adjusted some other fees for reinspection, where we have to go in if they fail the inspection the first time they have to correct it, so we added a reinspection fee to cover cost of the reinspection. And we put a caveat in there where if it's an out-of-state owner, that's always a red flag that if it's an out-of-state owner opening up a massage business in Alabama, they are more likely not a legitimate massage therapist. There are exceptions to that rule, but we do have an initial inspection fee for those."

Williams said the lack of transparency was a concern for her and other massage therapists.

After the law went into effect, Williams said she contacted Warren multiple times about several issues and communicated with him on social media. After she announced to other massage therapists that the law was going into effect, she criticized Warren for not making the changes known to the public. However, he said he had plans to do so. Williams shared some of those communications with 1819 News.

In one email exchange, Warren told Williams that she didn't know how government worked and that he was planning to release information soon.

"I hate that you feel the Board and I have let you down," he wrote, according to Williams. "I also hate that movement is being led by someone that continues to spread false information, does not know how state government works and does not want to work with any of the Board members, myself or staff and has even contacted staff members to join their forces! I will continue to provide the great services for the Board, the licensees, and the citizens of this state as I have for the past 26 years."

In other emails and messages, Warren continued to explain the processes and how things worked. He accused Williams of spreading false information about record-keeping practices after she filed a complaint with the Attorney General's office.

"I will have my attorneys contact the Attorney General's Office pertaining to your complaint and allegations of the poor record-keeping and financial tracking!" he replied. "These are false allegations and are not outlined in the audit reports from the Examiners of Public Accounts."

After viewing the emails, State Sen. Chris Elliott (R-Josephine) said he became concerned and started looking closer into occupational licensing operations in Alabama.

"It is unbelievable the tone and standard in which the executive director of this board is speaking to a licensee," Elliott said. "Unprofessional doesn't begin to cut it. It's just nasty, argumentative. It's bad. Just plain bad. Here is a person who is trying to operate a business, and the occupational licensing director is really getting in the way of her just doing her business. And that's just one example."

Now, Elliott plans to introduce legislation to ensure the efficiency and professionalism of occupational licensing statewide. The bill will propose that the operations of boards are housed within the Secretary of State's office to ensure commonality between the staff for all of the boards.

"I think this wide net of occupational licensing is really the last vestige of big government, Democrat control in Alabama," Elliott told 1819 News. "Twenty-three percent of all workers in Alabama fall under one of these licensing boards."

Elliott said some licensing shouldn't be required for people to work in Alabama, and he believes a lot of it is about the money.

"We're seeing percentages like 90-something percent of the licensing fee is going to a private company," he explained. "So, the board collects all this license money, then turns around and gives it to a private company … Where is the check on that? There is not one except for the board itself."

Elliott believes the way the system is set up lends itself to being abused and not just by companies that manage multiple boards.

"Some boards have their own general counsel, it'll have its own office, its own executive director and coffee or whatever, and it is this self-perpetuating thing that they charge these licensing fees so they can have a job. And you wonder do they need their own of everything? … Two of the boards, Warren went before contract review, I held out both of the contracts for general counsel, and it's over $200,000 a year," said Elliott. "For what? To be the general counsel for the counseling board? Or the general counsel for the Board of Electrical Contractors? Why does he need to be paying general counsel $200,000 a year? And why aren't they using a DAG, a Deputy Attorney General from the state's attorney, to do this work? … I think what you've got here is two separate things. You've got this cottage industry that is absolutely set up around and making significant profits off of managing these boards. And you've got increases in license fees that are then paid to the private companies that are managing these boards. Then they say, 'Oh well, we've got to raise our fees so we can pay ourselves more money.' That is a dangerous cycle. Then you have other boards with their own little staff, but there's not much work there. There is no reason they couldn't share the same staff member who works for the Secretary of State."

Elliott said that boards that meet once every quarter do not need an office and a board room. He believes Alabama should look at how the state of Georgia operates and pay attention to the waste.

"It works very well in Georgia, and it's very efficient," he said. "But there is also a lot of continuity. A lot of people don't understand the Open Meetings Act, or they don't understand how things work, but in Georgia, they have professionals, and that's all they do. It's much more efficient because they handle multiple, multiple, multiple boards, and they don't charge. We need to head this way to a more professional system. We don't need all this, and it's wasteful."

Another concern about the way boards in Alabama operate is protectionism. Elliot pointed out it is possible that board members could fight against their own competition by not allowing licensing.

"They say, '"We don't want any more competition,'" Elliott said. "We don't want any more competition. We have to make it as hard as we can for somebody to get a license, and that is not what we want our government to be doing."

Warren admitted he had seen instances in the past where someone wanted to get on a board to restrict their trade of others, but he said each board is audited to ensure that doesn't happen.

"I can't sit here and say that there may not be more stringent requirements that could be reduced," he said. "It's not our job to be an obstacle for licensure for them to join the workforce. Our job is to assist. We make sure they have met the requirements that have been set by the board and all of the statutes that were at some point passed by the legislature."

Boards and Commissions in Alabama report to the Examiners of Public Accounts. They conduct two audits, one for legal compliance and another sunset audit. Warren said that is the way his boards are held accountable.

"The sunset audit is presented by the examiners to the board, and once it is final, it is presented to the Sunset Committee, which is comprised of members of the legislature, senators and representatives," said Warren. "We all appear before them every four years to reveal the audit findings and to correct if there is anything that needs to be changed or any process. If not, we go before them to see what we're doing right and what we're doing wrong. It is left up to the Sunset Committee to review and to present to the legislature if they see fit. All boards are audited by the Examiners of Public Accounts."

Elliott's plan includes a professional at the Secretary of State's office presenting information to be audited for all boards and commissions. He believes that would make for an easier and more efficient process.

"This is an even better reason to standardize this," he said. "Put it all under one office and have it handled by professionals who are also handling other boards."

Other Alabama lawmakers have also considered how Florida's and Georgia's boards are governed. State Rep. Margie Wilcox (R-Mobile), who chairs the Boards, Agencies and Commissions Committee, told Capitol Journal she plans to travel to Georgia for an inside look at what they do.

"It's very premature to say that we've decided on anything," Wilcox said. "But with a very open mind, we're looking at what the governor desires and her administration and talking with them. There's the Efficiency Committee which many members of the Sunset are also on that Efficiency Committee of the governor's, so we will be looking to them for guidance on those particulars."

Elliott said because the boards all have their own attorneys, they will fight to keep their boards in place, and it would be a difficult fight in Montgomery to reform occupational licensing. But the big question for Elliott is, "What's the point?"

"You send in your money and your application, then what are they doing for the public?" he asked. "What is the value of saying, 'I'm a licensed locksmith. I'm a licensed wrestler. I'm a licensed auctioneer.' Why? Why do you have to have a license to be a wrestler? So, what does it do to me, and what does it do for the public to know that I'm a licensed wrestler?"

To connect with the author of this story or to comment, email [email protected].

Don't miss out! Subscribe to our newsletter and get our top stories every weekday morning.