Let Nebraskans Work
The Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge spans the Missouri River, connecting Omaha with Council Bluffs, Iowa. Joggers and cyclists cross each day, and visitors frequently stop to take a photo where the state line is drawn on the pavement.
Many people live on one side of the bridge and work on the other. But not everyone makes this commute because they want to. Ilona Holland drives from Nebraska to Iowa each day for work because she has to.
Ilona is one of many Nebraska workers facing barriers to success because of state occupational licensing laws. Ilona received her massage therapy license through a community college in Maryland while her husband, Eric, attended graduate school there.
At 600 hours of training, Maryland is already a rigorous state for massage therapy licensing. Most states require around 500 hours. But when Ilona moved to Nebraska to be closer to family, she found our requirements even more onerous.
Only two states require 1,000 training hours for massage therapy licensing, and Nebraska is one of them. Nearly 200 other jobs in Nebraska also require government licensing.
State-mandated training for licensure can be expensive and time-consuming even in an average state. In Nebraska, it can take over a year to complete the 1,000 hours required, and tuition, supplies, and materials can cost over $10,000.
Requiring 400-500 additional training hours for a licensed massage therapist can mean adding thousands of dollars to the cost of starting a business or hiring an employee in Nebraska.
“These vast requirements are really preventing massage therapists from setting up in Nebraska,” Ilona said. “I had already spent money on my education in Maryland and needed the income for our family right away upon moving,” she said.
Just on the other side of the Bob Kerrey Bridge in Iowa, a massage therapist only needs 600 hours to practice. While several clients were interested in hiring Ilona in Nebraska, the difficulty of paying more for training she had already acquired led her to opening her business in Council Bluffs.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the massage therapy field is growing rapidly. The median income for these practitioners is $38,040, though wages in the profession can be substantially higher.
But Ilona says Nebraska’s occupational licensing requirements make this career opportunity inaccessible for too many workers in Nebraska.
“It’s limiting what Nebraska can offer, the potential for growth, not only in massage therapy, but in other fields. I was fortunate to be able to open my business across the state line, but for those that are way out west, or are having financial issues, that can present a lot of challenges,” she said.
Despite nearly every other state requiring fewer training hours, members of Nebraska’s Board of Massage Therapy claim massage therapists like Ilona are not sufficiently trained to practice safely in Nebraska.
In recent Facebook posts, two members of the four member state board decried “deregulation” that would align Nebraska with other states as a “danger” to Nebraskans and a “nightmare” for massage therapists.
They further argue that a 2008 law offers temporary licensing if practitioners like Ilona agree to complete the full 1,000 hours. But when Ilona was informed about the additional training requirements needed to practice in Nebraska, she was told the curriculum was made up of elective courses.
“It doesn’t make a lot of sense to me,” said Ilona. “If those 400 hours required are indeed necessary to safeguard our consumers then I should not be allowed to work with or without a temporary license,” she said.
In effect, Nebraska’s additional requirements provide a subsidy to private training schools and stifle competition in the industry, which researchers have shown leads to higher prices for consumers.
For her part, Ilona plans to speak up for other workers who are unable to follow their calling because of the financial burden imposed by the state’s occupational licensing barriers. She believes it’s time for a dialogue over how to bring Nebraska’s licensing requirements in line with other states.
“Find an average. Look at all fifty states and see where we can meet somewhere in the middle that safeguards the consumer, while being accessible and realistic.”