Kae Kozlowski moves a long, sharp tweezer over the woman’s closed eyes. The faux eyelash in its grip is made from genuine mink fur; the next is a blend of nylon and silk. She employs a sculptor’s exactness to attach one fake lash to a real one hundreds of times over the next hour, hair by hair.
These eyelash technicians must possess an artistic flair and obsessive attention to detail. Yet despite the perils of sharp objects dancing millimeters from the delicate skin of an eyelid, the profession does not require a license that establishes standards of training and experience for lengthening eyelashes.
Now Minnesota legislators are debating whether to require licenses for a range of occupations including massage and music therapists, clinical lactation specialists, and eyelash technicians. These proposals are unfolding amid a national debate about the increasing appearance of licensure requirements in jobs that once required none.
A coalition of sometimes-strange ideological bedfellows, from Republican U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan to President Obama, have said licensing requirements are a barrier to upward mobility because they make it more difficult for lower-income people to break into fields that require an expensive license, while adding to costs for consumers.
“If you’re in the boat, you don’t want more people in the boat,” said Morris Kleiner, an economist at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs and a visiting scholar at the Federal Reserve Bank who has studied the subject for decades.
Kleiner says the portion of jobs requiring a license has increased from 5 percent of the workforce to 25 percent since the 1950s.
He said licensing provides easy money for government coffers because the fees from licenses outstrip the cost of administering them. And, licensed and regulated industries are generous campaign donors that can afford a lobbying presence in state capitols and city halls. Soon, other industries see the advantages and want to get in on the act.
All told, Kleiner says his studies conclude licensing costs 2.85 million jobs nationwide — 15,000 in Minnesota — and $1,000 per family in higher costs for goods and services.
A coalition of lobbyists and legislators working on a massage therapy licensing bill in Minnesota say it would make it easier, not more difficult, for practitioners.
Some cities now license and regulate massage therapists by conducting background checks as a way to curtail prostitution enabled by unscrupulous operators. The measure before the Legislature would hand over these duties to the state and allow people to pass one background check instead of having to spend lots of time and money getting licensed in different cities.
Rep. Nick Zerwas, R-Elk River, who is chairman of a licensure subcommittee, said the bill is a voluntary measure that allows practitioners to be vetted once for ease of commerce.
Who stands to gain?
Barbara York learned the value of therapeutic touch when she first started practicing in the late 1960s on patients in what would now be called hospice care. She is fighting the legislation as an incremental step toward full licensure because she wants to defend clients and small practitioners, especially those with nontraditional training.
“It’s clearly about competition and the ability to raise the prices,” she said of the licensure effort.
If full licensure happens, accredited schools that teach massage therapy and can hand out credentials stand to gain. Massage therapy certificate and degree programs at Northwestern Health Sciences in Bloomington, for instance, can range from $17,000 to $22,000 in tuition.
The money at stake helps explain why Northwestern Health Sciences has retained lobbyist David Kunz, who said he is a veteran of the “eye drop wars” over optometry licensing.
Sen. Chris Eaton, DFL-Brooklyn Center, who is a sponsor of the massage therapy bill, said the fears of a slippery slope toward licensing and regulation are unfounded.
She is also sponsoring a bill to license lactation consultants, who specialize in helping new mothers to breast-feed properly. A key motivation is to help providers become eligible for Medical Assistance — the state’s health care program for low-income residents — which, by federal government rules, is impossible without licensure.
Eaton said breast-feeding is where socioeconomic disparities begin: 90 percent of new mothers start breast-feeding, but three months later fewer than half are able to maintain the practice, which hurts the child.
In the cosmetology industry, Minnesota was at the forefront of a controversy involving African hair braiders. A decade ago, regulators backed down from a proposal to license them and require 1,550 hours of government training. Several hair braiders sued, arguing that the expensive training courses did not teach the craft and that the mandates were more onerous than those for dangerous jobs. Traditional cosmetology schools offer fewer opportunities to learn how to style black women’s hair.
Similar disputes over ethnic hair braiding have arisen in at least a dozen other states.
A uniform standard
Minnesota’s Board of Cosmetologist Examiners is considering an overhaul of its rules that would clarify that eyelash technicians are among the occupations requiring a cosmetologist or aesthetician license. That led Brenda Totz to worry that she would have to take hundreds of hours of training in facials, waxing and other skills she does not use in her eyelash extension studio in Alexandria, Minn. She suggested the bill requiring that eyelash technicians be licensed separately, allowing a more straightforward path to meeting regulatory standards.
People in the business say beauty schools usually don’t teach the art of extending eyelashes and that practitioners’ training and experience can vary widely.
That’s why some people in the eyelash extension business are eager for more regulation.
“I beg for it,” said Nicole Flevaris, who trains aspiring eyelash stylists from around the world during a $5,000, five-day course at The Lashe in Chicago.
Past trainees include Kozlowski, who owns two Brow Chic studios in Minneapolis and St. Paul. Flevaris believes that companies offering her depth of training are rare, and she said too many eyelash stylists are learning the trade from YouTube, Google or a daylong class.
“I wouldn’t allow 95 percent of our industry to come within five feet of my face,” she said.
But eyelash technicians point out that new licenses would not protect against low-quality lashes and adhesives, which can be just as important as the qualifications of the person applying them. And they do not guard against the fact that a few clients have allergic reactions, or at least some irritation.
Even with training, “that still doesn’t guarantee that you’re going to be good at it,” Totz said.
She added that she’d like eyelash technicians to be required to pass a competency test, which isn’t in the legislation. She periodically sees clients come in with their eyelash extensions applied poorly, hairs askew or clumped with glue.
As she separated her client’s lashes with the tweezers, Kozlowski acknowledged that extending eyelashes is still an emerging industry.
Her client, a middle-aged speech pathologist from Shoreview, lay on her back on a table with white pads below and above her eyes. Kozlowski was giving the woman her signature set, using the lashes made of nylon and silk to bring length and density and the ones made of mink to give them fluff.
“There should definitely be some regulation. … The most important thing is that people are safe,” she said.