As Arizona emerges from its extended economic and employment shutdowns due to COVID-19, more than 1,180 professionals in trades ranging from medicine to construction are ready to go to work, thanks to a law signed a year ago that permits them to quickly obtain a state occupational license.
The state’s new universal recognition law allows people licensed in another state to quickly obtain an equivalent license when they move to Arizona. It bypasses the normal bureaucracy and red tape associated with getting a license to work. Instead, the new law says that a person who comes to Arizona with a license in good standing in another state for at least a year qualifies. There is still some paperwork and verification, and maybe a test on state-specific laws and policies. But for most professions, getting a license under the universal recognition law takes a fraction of the time, money, and documentation they would otherwise have to expend.
Gov. Doug Ducey signed the law in April 2019, and it took effect last August. Since then, about 1,454 people have applied for an Arizona license under the law. Of those, at least 1,186 have had their licenses approved while only 16 have been rejected. The others are either pending or have been withdrawn, often because of missing paperwork or failure to pay fees.
It’s likely there would have been more had the state’s economy and government operations not been largely suspended throughout April to combat the spread of COVID-19. But even at that, the numbers show the law is working, said Rep. Warren Petersen, R-Gilbert, who sponsored the universal licensing bill last year.
“I think we’re off to a great start,” Petersen said. “As more people know about it and learn about it, it will be used even more.”
The benefits of the new law will be particularly important in helping Arizona’s economy recover as it emerges from the restrictions imposed to deal with the virus. Beyond the benefits for those already here, “Draconian” economic restrictions imposed by governors and mayors in other states are likely to create an influx of professionals moving to Arizona in the coming months, Petersen said.
“As part of that migration we want to make sure that those people coming here can get to work immediately without having to wait to do education or take tests for a license that they’ve already held for a long time and for skills that they already know,” he said.
The Goldwater Institute helped draft the universal recognition law and get it passed. Since then, four other states have adopted similar laws. Bills were introduced in 20 other states this year to adopt universal recognition for occupational licenses.
The idea behind the law is that if a person is qualified to practice a given profession in one state, that person is also qualified to do the same job in Arizona. About one-fourth of all workers both nationally and in Arizona require some type of license to do their jobs. It’s not just people like doctors, nurses, and others in medical professions, even though protecting the public’s health and safety is typically cited as the reason for licensing a given profession. Among the other trades licensed in Arizona are hairdressers, real estate agents, funeral directors, construction contractors, landscape architects, athletic trainers, geologists, massage therapists, and home inspectors.
Teachers are not covered under the new law. However, since 2017 the Department of Education has operated under a statute with similar licensing provisions for teachers moving in from other states.
Getting a new license in any state is time consuming and expensive. Complicating things further, the license qualifications for most professions vary from state to state, making it difficult to move around. For instance, it takes 1,000 hours of classroom training to become a cosmetologist in Massachusetts and New York. Getting a cosmetologist’s license in Arizona requires 1,600 hours of education, and some states require as many as 2,100 hours.
The new law waives any Arizona-specific requirements for such things as education and apprenticeships. If a person met the requirements in their old state, that’s good enough to qualify in Arizona. So a cosmetologist with only 1,000 hours of education from Massachusetts or New York would be able to qualify for the Arizona license, even without meeting the requirement for 1,600 hours of classroom training.
To assess the effectiveness of the new law, the Goldwater Institute sent public records requests to the state’s licensing boards and agencies seeking information about applications and approvals. There are more than 30 licensing entities in all.
Eight of them did not respond, and one does not track applications under the new law. Of those that did respond, some reported their numbers before the coronavirus restrictions were imposed, but did not provide updates that were sought in late April.
By far the most successful entity when it comes to implementing the law is the Registrar of Contractors (ROC), which licenses construction trades such as builders, electricians, and plumbers. The ROC has received 449 applications for licenses under the universal recognition law since it went into effect in late August 2019. Of those, 423 applications were approved and one rejected. The rest are either pending or have been withdrawn or returned for various reasons.
Since the law took effect, more than 13 percent of all license applications received by the ROC have come from out-of-state tradespeople seeking to use the universal recognition process, said Jeff Fleetham, executive director of the ROC.
There is still strong demand for the construction trades in Arizona, and the flow of applications has remained steady even during the economic hiatus caused by the virus.
The ROC was already streamlining its licensing procedures when the law took effect, so implementing it did not create any delays or problems for applicants, Fleetham said.
“We were already on the path of finding out reasons to give people licenses instead of reasons not to,” Fleetham said. “I just know if I am a licensed person in one state, as soon as I cross over that border I don’t lose all of that skill. I may have some different laws. But that doesn’t mean I’m not qualified to do what I do.”
One benefit for the ROC is that it is a state agency, which reports to the governor, and not an independent licensing board that might be resistant to the new law, Fleetham said. Ducey is a strong advocate of the law. Fleetham reports directly to him. The staff of independent regulatory boards answers to the board members, not to the governor.
The ROC is also different than other entities in that it licenses businesses, not individual workers. So a single license for a contractor could translate into any number of jobs. About a fourth of all companies licensed by the ROC have more than five employees.
Licensing businesses rather than individuals also gives the ROC more flexibility in interpreting the residency requirement of the new law, Fleetham said. Each license identifies a responsible individual. But whether that person physically lives in Arizona is less important to the ROC than that the business is operating here.
As passed last year, the law is available to anyone who “establishes residence” in the state.
“I’m not going to tell you legally what it is, but I know that Bill Gates doesn’t have to live in Arizona to have a store here,” Fleetham said. “There’s no other business in the state of Arizona that has to have the owner of the business living in Arizona. Not one.”
Failure to meet the residency requirement is the reason cited for more than half of the rejections. Of the 16 applications that have been rejected by various licensing boards, 12 were by the Arizona Medical Board, which licenses doctors. Of those, eight were because the applicant failed to establish residency in Arizona, and four were because the applicant did not have a valid license in another state for at least a year.
Patricia McSorley, executive director of the medical board and a separate but related board that licenses physician assistants, said people who did not meet the residency requirement usually had not yet moved to Arizona when they filed their applications. They were allowed to convert to an application for a standard license without additional fees. So in that sense, their applications were not rejected, she said.
As to qualifications, there is little variation in licensing requirements for doctors between states, so that has not been a concern, McSorley said.
Aside from the Registrar of Contractors, the new law has proved popular with cosmetologists, mental health counselors, and practitioners in medical fields.
The cosmetology board has received 324 applications under the new law, approved 298, and rejected none. The rest are pending.
The Board of Behavioral Health Examiners, which licenses mental health counselors, social workers, and therapists, has received 213 applications, approved 183, and rejected none.
From there, the boards with the most applications and approvals tend to be those in healthcare fields: doctors, dentists, occupational therapists, and psychologists.
One reason for that is those professions tend to have uniform national standards for testing and training, as well as accrediting entities recognized by all states. Uniform professional standards make it easier to implement universal recognition because many professions and licensing boards were already moving toward multistate recognition when the new law was passed in Arizona, several licensing officials said.
That national standardization also explains why some boards did not have any applications under the new law, including the Board of Nursing.
Like many medical professions, nursing is covered under a multistate reciprocity agreement. For nurses, it’s called the Nurse Licensure Compact and has been adopted in at least 34 states.
Under these reciprocal compacts, a person licensed in one participating state can practice in any of the states within the agreement without having to secure a separate in-state license. That differs from universal recognition, which accepts the credentials from a different state to qualify for an in-state license in Arizona.
The downside of reciprocity is that it only applies to states that participate.
The problem with Arizona’s universal recognition law is that it does not allow applicants to qualify for the nurse licensure compact as they would if they get the standard state license, said Emma Mamaluy, chief counsel of the nursing board. A universal recognition license is only valid in Arizona, and cannot be used to qualify for a reciprocal license, under the law.
So a nurse coming from a compact state does not need a separate Arizona license to practice. Someone coming from a non-compact state, such as California, could apply for the universal recognition license, but it would only be valid in Arizona. Therefore, it makes more sense for that person to apply for a standard Arizona license, which would qualify them for the reciprocal license.
“If they can’t get a multistate through the universal licensure process, that’s a huge negative for them,” Mamaluy said. “So it makes a lot more sense for them to go through the regular process and get the multistate, even if they are coming from a non-multistate. Then they can move around. Everybody wants the multistate license.”
Accountants are in a similar position, said Monica Petersen, executive director of the Arizona Board of Accountancy.
All states and U.S. territories have similar licensing standards for accountants based on model legislation called the Uniform Accountancy Act. Arizona already had a path for applicants from other states to quickly qualify for an in-state license when the universal recognition law was passed, Petersen said. So applicants for a new license continued to use that old application process since the new law did not offer any particular benefit.
The accounting board has only received one application under the universal licensing law, and that was approved.
Beyond the numbers of applications and approvals, some licensing boards have been more friendly to the new law than others.
As the Goldwater Institute reported in March, the Arizona Department of Real Estate combined what had historically been separate state and national tests into a single exam shortly after the new law took effect. Boards are allowed to administer limited tests specifically on Arizona statutes and rules, but they cannot impose national standards tests because the applicants would have taken those when they were licensed in other states. By combining the tests into a single exam, the real estate department effectively forced applicants to take both the national and state standards tests. It has since reversed the policy and will offer separate national and state exams.
The Goldwater Institute also checked the websites of various licensing boards to see whether they made it easy for out-of-state applicants to find information about the new law. Several sites prominently displayed accurate information on the universal licensing law. Others either made no prominent mention of the licensing option or had information buried several clicks into their websites.
The websites were reviewed before the restrictions were put in place to deal with the COVID-19 virus. Since then, virus-related information dominates most of the websites of licensing boards.
Beyond making information hard to find, at least one board website posted inaccurate information. The website of the state Board of Occupational Therapy Examiners until recently said that anyone who has ever held a license in Arizona previously does not qualify for a license under universal recognition. There is nothing in the law that says that, and that line was removed after the Goldwater Institute asked about it in an email seeking clarification.
The occupational therapy board has received 79 applications and approved 14. None has been rejected, but 33 are pending and 30 have been withdrawn. The others were incomplete or had other paperwork issues.
Karen Whiteford, executive director of the occupational therapy board, said there are several reasons for the unusually high number of withdrawn applications. Some people may have been unaware that proof of residency was required to qualify. Others filed for the wrong type of license, or had technical issues that resulted in duplicate applications.
Jonathan Riches, director of national litigation at the Goldwater Institute, said some licensing boards are clearly resistant to the new law, and view it as a challenge to their ability to regulate their professions.
“Occupational licensing boards in this state have to understand they are not immune to the law,” Riches said. “Arizona has made a policy decision to welcome workers from other states in this state. Licensing boards should do everything in their power to quickly and efficiently implement that law, not throw up roadblocks that violate it.”
Jordan Donaldson, a Goldwater Institute policy intern, assisted in the compilation of data for this report.
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