In 2009, when Pat Tia was accepted into the radiology program at Southwest Community College, she assumed her path to becoming a radiation therapist would be smooth.
Tia is a convicted felon who has served time for prostitution and drug possession. Her last conviction was 11 years old when she got into Southwest. But before she even began classes, she ran into Tennessee’s occupational licensing restrictions, which can make it near impossible for formerly incarcerated people to pursue dozens of well-paying careers.
Ex-offenders face limited access to education, housing and employment, which can lead to a rocky re-entry. The State of Tennessee bars ex-offenders from holding dozens of jobs that require licenses, including hairdressers, car salespeople, and polygraph examiners. And since 95 percent of state prisoners will eventually be released, thousands of men and women run into these licensing burdens every year.
Blanket bans on occupational licensing for past convictions is a nationwide problem that lacks “transparency and predictability, according to the National Employment Law Project (NELP). Among the number of exclusions ex-felons face are: 12,000 restrictions for all types of felonies; 6,000 restrictions for misdemeanors; 19,000 disqualifications that could last a lifetime; and more than 11,000 mandatory disqualifiers.
“No research, however, supports the persistent misconception that a workplace is less safe if an employee has a past record,” according to Michelle Natividad Rodriguez and Beth Avery at NELP.
Tia, 54, wanted to be a radiation therapist, helping cancer patients and others with radiation treatment. The starting salary for radiation therapists is $80,160, according to federal labor statistics, and the occupation is growing much faster others. Through HopeWorks, a non-profit that works with the chronically unemployed, she landed an internship in radiation oncology at Regional One Health in 2009 and chose to go to Southwest to continue her education.
After she’d been accepted into the associate’s degree program, some friends from church who worked in the health field warned her to check the state’s licensing rules for radiology. They helped her pay for a background check before the semester began.
A 2007 state licensing law for health professions makes it crystal clear: Based on her criminal background, the Board of Medical Examiners would not be able to issue a radiology license to Tia upon the completion of her program.
A 2010 law further stated if the applicant committed a sex offense, adult abuse, or elder abuse in the last seven years, “the health care professional shall not employ or contract with the person.”
While Tia’s record included none of those charges, she did spend much of her adult life in and out of jails and prisons across the country, last convicted in 1998. It was when she came to Memphis that she got involved with All Saints Presbyterian Church and HopeWorks, and made steps in earnest toward a new life.
Radiology is not the only occupation with stringent rules against formerly incarcerated people. The state’s Cosmetology Board can suspend, revoke, or deny a license due to a felony conviction within three years before the board’s decision or a “conviction of any misdemeanor involving moral turpitude” within one year of the decision.
Moral turpitude is the generic legal term for crimes that display dishonesty or immorality. In Tennessee, offenses of moral turpitude include bribery, fraud, drug charges, and prostitution.
In 2016, state Reps. Raumesh Akbari, D-Memphis and state Sen. Mark Norris, R-Collierville, helped pass a law that reduces the number of occupations with the catch-all moral turpitude clause.
The law affected eight occupations, including barbers, soil drillers, fireworks exhibitors, land surveyors, reflexologists and servers who distribute alcohol. Now, regulatory boards for these eight jobs can only deny a license when the board finds that the applicant’s conviction “bears directly on the applicant’s fitness to practice competently.”
The Beacon Center, a right-leaning organization in Nashville that advocates for limited government, also helped pass Right to Earn a Living Act in 2016. The law requires the state to reassess regulatory board rules to be sure that the restrictions “are necessary to protect the public health, safety or welfare.”
Hannah Cox, the outreach coordinator at the Beacon Center, hopes legislators will find the restrictions too severe. She says occupational licensing restrictions have been increasing in the past few decades.
A 2015 report issued by the Obama administration states that today, “ one-quarter of U.S. workers must have a state license to do their jobs, a five-fold increase since the 1950s.”
“And what we also found was that in Tennessee, we actually have about the 13th worst burden of the states for the amount of occupational licenses that we require and for the amount of those licenses that pertain to low- and middle-income fields,” Cox said.
But Akbari says deregulation should not necessarily be the main goal. Instead, she suggests the focus should be “eliminating the barriers” for people to get the license.
Tia agrees with Akbari. “I’m for licensing but maybe not such a stringent process. There’s some things that people have to do that require a stringent process, like doctors and lawyers,” she said, “people that have your life in their hands.”
NELP takes reform even further by providing a path to fairer laws by asking questions like whether state laws prohibit blanket rejections of people with a criminal record and if rehabilitation is a consideration.
Tia gave up on the idea of getting her radiology license. Instead, she earned an associate’s degree at Southwest in human services in 2011. If her friends hadn’t urged her to get a background check, she may have completed her degree before she realized the state could deny her a license.
“I think on the school’s part, they need to disclose that if you’re gonna do this, if this is your choice of career path, then you need to know that you have to be licensed by the state of Tennessee,” she said.
In fact, the school’s website and course catalog does state: “Persons who have been convicted of a crime other than a minor traffic violation could be ineligible for The American Registry of Radiologic Technologists, even though they successfully complete the program.”
Nevertheless, Tia has found her niche at HopeWorks as a case manager, guiding students through some of the difficulties of unemployment she’s experienced.
Radiology, Tia said, “is what I wanted to do, but God had other plans.”
This report is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit reporting project on economic justice in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today.