Courtney Haveman had a drinking problem. From 2011 to 2013, she pleaded guilty to several misdemeanors, including driving while intoxicated and possession of drug paraphernalia for smoking pot, according to state records. She reached rock bottom at age 21 when she hit a security guard while drunkenly resisting arrest at a casino.
She joined Alcoholics Anonymous, and now six years sober and the mother of a toddler, Haveman wants to become an esthetician — a cosmetologist who focuses on facial care. She paid $6,000 to take six months of courses at a beauty school, and a salon offered her a job with the condition that she get a professional license. However, because of her criminal record, the Pennsylvania Board of Cosmetology decided in 2016 that Haveman did not have the “good moral character” necessary to take the esthetician exam and denied her license.
“They picture me as some dark soul, but really I’m just a normal mom trying to wax some eyebrows,” said Haveman, 28, who lives in Yardley, Pennsylvania.
Haveman decided not to request an appeal hearing. She felt too humiliated to try to defend her moral character to the board. It might not have made a difference anyway.
Amanda Spillane was in the same situation — rejected by the cosmetology board because of past drug convictions — and went through an appeal hearing in 2015. She and her father both cried as they tried to explain why she was a good person, but the board still rejected her. While Spillane demonstrated that she’d kept a steady job and hadn’t been arrested again, the board concluded that this wasn’t enough to prove she had good moral character.
“Everyone deserves a second chance — people change their lives and we all have to be able to make a living,” said Spillane, 35, a single mother from Westminster, Pennsylvania. “How do you prove your moral character anyway? It’s hard, besides just doing the right thing and not getting in trouble anymore.”
The Pennsylvania Cosmetology Law allows the state to deny people a license if they lack “good moral character,” which the state initially bases on whether they have a criminal record, no matter the offense or when it happened. The law doesn’t define what good moral character is, and records obtained by NBC News of all 58 rejections on those grounds between 2015 and 2019 by the Pennsylvania cosmetology board show inconsistency in how the provision is applied. Some women were rejected for prostitution convictions, even if they had testified that they were forced into sex work, or for decade-old drug-related crimes. Yet the board gave licenses to two people with homicide convictions after they appealed.
The moral character provision of Pennsylvania’s cosmetology law is one of tens of thousands of regulations used by states and local governments that make it harder for people with criminal records to find work. Often called “collateral consequences,” these rules affect about 1 in 3 American adults who have a criminal record and can increase recidivism, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights concluded in a report last year.
While politicians say there may be instances when it makes sense to restrict people from certain jobs based on their criminal record — like someone convicted of fraud who is applying for a real estate license — some lawmakers in Pennsylvania and other states are moving to change these laws, arguing that they accomplish little beyond making it harder for people who have served their time to get their life back on track. Even the Pennsylvania Department of State, which oversees the cosmetology board, said it supports removing the “good character requirement” from the cosmetology law, as well as laws regulating other industries.
The state “supports clear standards for professional licensing that protect the health and safety of Pennsylvanians and that remove unnecessary or unclear licensure requirements,” the department said in a statement. However, it also noted that “in the meantime, the boards that regulate licensing in Pennsylvania have the responsibility to practice under current standards.”
Haveman and Spillane couldn’t afford to wait for a law to be changed. Represented by the libertarian nonprofit Institute for Justice, they sued the state’s cosmetology board in 2018, arguing that the moral character clause is unconstitutional, “oppressive” and unfair because it’s a requirement for hairdressers but not barbers. In December, a three-judge panel allowed the suit to proceed.
“These laws just don’t make things better,” said Andrew Ward, Haveman and Spillane’s attorney. “This law in Pennsylvania is a perfect example of that.”
‘They wanted proof’ that she ‘found God’
When Sarah Burke walked into her Board of Cosmetology appeal hearing on Dec. 8, 2015, in Harrisburg, she was surprised to see it was set up like a courtroom. There were two tables, one for the state’s prosecuting attorney and the other for the applicant, Burke. A hearing examiner, a lawyer working for the state government, served as the judge-like figure at the front of the room. The hearing examiner questioned how Burke could show she had rehabilitated herself.
“I just remember it was a very uncomfortable situation,” said Burke, 29. “They were like: ‘Why did you do it? What made you think you’d get away with it?’”
Burke had been “provisionally denied” a cosmetology license for lack of good moral character. She had been caught shoplifting from a Walmart with a friend and pleaded guilty to retail theft charges in 2014. Burke appealed the denial and the board arranged a hearing, but the state did not tell her what to bring or how to prepare for it, she said.
Burke was one of the 58 people whom the Pennsylvania Board of Cosmetology “provisionally denied” after they applied to take a cosmetology exam from 2015 to 2019, according to records obtained by NBC News. The board arranges an appeal hearing in Harrisburg for any applicant who requests one. Depending on where the applicant lives, that may be a three-hour drive each way, as it was for Burke.
“All to prove that they can work in a field that might be completely unrelated to their records,” said Jamie Gullen, an attorney with Community Legal Services in Philadelphia, who has represented cosmetology applicants. “That’s an enormous burden on individuals.”
During Spillane’s June 2015 hearing on her application for an esthetician license, the state examiner fought every argument she made that she was a good person, according to state records.
Spillane said she brought a certificate that showed she had completed drug rehabilitation, copies of job reviews and reference letters; the hearing examiner questioned why those people didn’t come with her to the hearing. She said she donated money to charity; the hearing examiner wanted evidence of it, which she didn’t bring.
“When I was in prison, I found God, I became religious — it changed my life,” Spillane said. “But they wanted proof of that, too.”
The 13 members of the cosmetology board, who are appointed by the governor and state offices, do not attend the hearings. Instead, the state said, they review the hearing examiner’s proposed order and hearing transcripts and then make a decision.
“Everyone has to make a living…. We have to be able to do something with our lives.”
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Of the 58 people who were initially denied cosmetology licenses from 2015 to 2019, 42 appealed and received licenses — but 32 of those licenses were just temporary, with strict conditions the applicant had to follow for one to five years. The state says these conditions are imposed to protect the public.
Eleven months after Burke’s appeal hearing, the board allowed her to take the exam for her license, which would be probationary for two years. The state required her to notify the board within 48 hours of a change in job, address or phone number, or risk losing her ability to cut hair. She also could not break any laws, except for traffic violations. Burke now cuts hair full time.
Spillane wasn’t so lucky.
The hearing examiner wrote of Spillane: “Despite Applicant’s assertion that she has ‘found god’ and, therefore, has been spiritually rehabilitated, Applicant produced no documentation or evidence of particular conduct demonstrating her purported spiritual rehabilitation.” The board followed the hearing examiner’s conclusion and rejected Spillane again.
Spillane was upset. She’d already paid $9,000 to attend the Bucks County School of Beauty Culture, and hoped that would be her ticket out of shifts at McDonald’s that started at 4:45 a.m. She felt like the decision about whether her crime should keep her out of salons should be up to an employer, not the state.
“Everyone has to make a living,” said Spillane, who lives with her parents and her 3-month-old daughter. “I can’t live on $10 an hour at McDonald’s for the rest of my life. Now I have a kid. We have to be able to do something with our lives.”
During hearings, applicants recount past abuse and sex trafficking
There is no clear explanation of what counts as good moral character under the law in Pennsylvania.
The chair of the Pennsylvania cosmetology board, Tammy O’Neill, said in a November 2019 deposition that “everybody has a different opinion” of what good moral character means. “It could be your religion, it could be your race, a lot of different things” could influence how someone defines a good person under the law, O’Neill said. “We all interpret things as we want to see them.”
A hearing examiner, Marc Moyer, criticized one woman at her October 2016 hearing for insisting she was actually innocent of the felonies on her record. She had been convicted of robbery for an incident five years earlier in which she and her then-boyfriend stole cash and a hat from a man, but the woman argued she’d been trapped in an abusive relationship at the time. She also said that she’d turned her life around, and brought the director of her beauty school to testify in support of her character. The state denied her appeal, saying that she had not taken responsibility for her past, and dismissed her character witness as irrelevant.
The board granted another woman’s appeal in November 2016 after she said she had been forced into committing a crime; she had pleaded guilty to promoting prostitution, but told the hearing examiner that a man she met online had kidnapped and sex trafficked her for a month. Moyer, who was also the hearing examiner in this case, credited the woman with finishing her cosmetology education and bringing two people from her beauty school to support her.
Moyer and O’Neill did not respond to requests for comment. The state declined repeated requests to make anyone from the cosmetology board available for an interview.
The Pennsylvania Association of Private School Administrators, a trade group that represents cosmetology schools, wants to see the good moral character requirement removed. Aaron Shenck, the group’s executive director, said it “does not make sense,” since the hearing examiners can have different opinions as to what counts for good morals.
Though the Supreme Court warned in 1957 that the term “good moral character” is “unusually ambiguous” and could be used for “arbitrary and discriminatory denial” of professional licenses, a study by the Institute for Justice found many states do not have protections against misuse of these provisions. Thirty-four states can deny occupational licenses based on an arrest that did not lead to a conviction, and 12 do not guarantee people a right to appeal, according to the institute.
“Good character has nothing to do with cosmetology.”
And even in states like Pennsylvania that allow appeals, those hearings can require applicants to relive difficult periods of their life, including abusive relationships.
One woman explained during her October 2015 Pennsylvania cosmetology board hearing that she had been in a verbally and physically abusive relationship for a decade with the father of her first two children. One night in May 2013, she said the man picked a fight with her after he came home from work at a bar. After he said she should think about dying, she grabbed a knife from the kitchen and stabbed herself in the chest, according to state records.
The woman told the cosmetology board that she didn’t remember everything about that night, but she believed that after police were called to the scene, she must have unintentionally hit an officer in the hand thinking it was the abusive father of her children, leading to aggravated assault charges.
The hearing examiner asked her to assure the cosmetology board that she had the good moral character to take an exam for her license. She replied that she’d put herself through school and volunteered at autism and breast cancer awareness events and that cosmetology had been her lifeline. “It’s been a major part of me feeling confident in me by making others feel confident in themselves,” she said at the hearing, according to records.
Then the board realized it had made a mistake in its initial denial — thinking that she had stabbed the father of her children, rather than herself — and granted her appeal in December 2015.
Who the ‘good character’ clauses target
More than 1 in 5 workers in the United States need a license to do their job. An American Bar Association database counts over 3,000 occupational licensing restrictions based on offenses of moral character currently on the books nationwide, which is just one slice of an estimated 44,000 collateral consequences affecting an estimated 77 million Americans who have a criminal record. Many of these job licensing laws have been on the books for decades, yet states typically do not analyze their impact.
“It is stunning to me that we don’t have more careful examination into whether they are effective, into whether they deter crime,” said Catherine Lhamon, chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. “We don’t examine that with seriousness partly because of the populations that are subject to them.”
Black people are nearly twice as likely as white people to be arrested by the police. Black people and Latinos represent 12 and 16 percent of the U.S. population, respectively, but 33 and 23 percent of all federal and state prisoners. In Pennsylvania, the state cosmetology board uses criminal convictions to flag people who may not pass its good moral character test.
While lawyers who’ve reviewed these cases and policies are unclear on what inspired moral character provisions in job licensing regulations, similar language has been used in laws designed to block Black people from voting. Mississippi added a requirement in 1960 that people must have “good moral character” to vote as part of a series of attempts to stifle Black voter registration. The Voting Rights Act, passed in 1965, got rid of moral character voting requirements alongside poll taxes and literacy tests.
In recent years, several states, including Kentucky, Missouri, Oklahoma and Tennessee, have curtailed occupational licensing boards’ ability to deny applicants based on moral character. But there are still plenty of good moral requirements that remain, including to be a shampoo assistant in West Virginia, an athletic trainer in Arizona, or a funeral service director in New Hampshire.
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, has called for easing, but not banning, the consideration of a job license applicant’s criminal record. A report ordered by Wolf said the good moral character requirement is “subjective in nature and is unevenly applied across licensing boards.” The report concluded that the boards should only withhold a license for “convictions which are directly related to the practice of the occupation.”
Han Lu, who studies barriers facing felons at the National Employment Law Project, an advocacy group, said that states should remove these job barriers as they respond to the economic downturn brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.
“When we’re talking about recovery, and who is deserving and who is not, there’s no lens with which you can look at recovery without centering people with records in the sense of economic recovery or in the sense of racial justice,” Lu said.
Lawmakers might ax the ‘good moral character’ requirement
Two years ago, the leadership of Empire Beauty School, a national chain of cosmetology schools with 17 locations in Pennsylvania, realized some of their graduates had trouble obtaining licenses because of the state’s moral character requirement. Frank Schoeneman, the school’s chairman and CEO, said he was agitated upon learning that Pennsylvania’s licenses for barbers — a field dominated by men — did not have the same moral character requirement.
“It’s sexist,” Schoeneman said. “Basically, it said the guys can have a criminal record and get a license, but for the most part women cannot.”
Schoeneman said he knew the students at Empire Beauty School wouldn’t be able to hire a lobbyist to change the law, so his company did. The lobbyist approached David Argall, a Republican state senator who had previously sponsored legislation streamlining cosmetology licensing.
“They think I’m a threat to the public from a crime I committed eight years ago.”
Argall, who said he considers the good moral character requirement “archaic” and discriminatory, wrote a bill to remove the provision from the cosmetology law. The bill cleared the Pennsylvania Senate unanimously last year, but it has not yet been taken up in the state House.
Instead, the Pennsylvania House passed a different bill that would keep the moral character provision in the cosmetology law, but require all licensing boards that deny applicants based on their criminal history to show the offense was directly related to their industry. Under the House legislation, the state could continue to bar someone convicted of fraud from becoming a licensed accountant, but a person guilty of shoplifting would not be stopped from becoming a cosmetologist.
“The board wants to keep a certain amount of authority to decide — they’re really policing their own,” said state Rep. Sheryl Delozier, a Republican and sponsor of the House bill.
It’s unclear which bill may win out before the legislative session ends later this year. The House bill follows recommendations of an economic development report issued by the Wolf administration in January, but the Pennsylvania Department of State said it also supports the Senate bill.
Ward, of the Institute for Justice, said there’s no reason for the board to review someone’s morals to decide if they can have a license to work at a salon.
“Good character has nothing to do with cosmetology,” Ward said. “It’s not relevant to tweezing eyebrows, braiding hair and doing nails.”
Haveman already works in a salon as an assistant, where she answers the phone, helps the stylists and shampoos clients, but she’s not allowed to give facials or wax eyebrows.
“This is so silly,” Haveman said. “They think I’m a threat to the public from a crime I committed eight years ago. I’m still allowed to touch clients and give a service, but it’s not what I went to school for.”
The situation is holding her back from being financially independent, Haveman said.
“Time’s a-tickin’,” Haveman said. “I graduated three years ago, almost four, and I’m just getting old. I need a career — I need something with my life.”