- Associated Press - Sunday, February 19, 2012

WATERBURY, Conn. — A crackdown on unlicensed barbers in Waterbury is stirring a backlash among Hispanics, who represent most of the violators.

More-established barbers are cheering the hard line taken by Mayor Neil O’Leary, a former police chief, who announced last week that unlicensed shops in the city may be forced to close. Some of the veterans pushed for the city to enforce the regulations, saying anything less would be a disservice to their profession.

In shops catering to the fast-growing Hispanic population, some unlicensed barbers say they feel they are being made into scapegoats for business slowing down in other shops.

“It’s not our fault that they don’t have any customers,” said Carlos Bermudez, 23. He said he is trying to come up with $2,000 to obtain a barber’s license, although he feels he learned to handle clippers just fine growing up in Puerto Rico. “There it’s in the blood. It just comes naturally.”

Of the 120 barber shops in Waterbury, the mayor says 20 are unlicensed or employ unlicensed barbers, and 16 of those are run by Hispanics. Officials say they directed those barbers more than a year ago to secure state-mandated licenses, and barbers who are not at least in the process of obtaining certification will be asked to leave the city.

Mr. O’Leary said it is a matter of public health but he is also sympathetic to the complaints of established barbers. The mayor, who took office in December, said some of them first approached him with concerns during his election campaign.

“I feel very strongly that the people who spent the time and the money and effort to get licenses have a legitimate issue here,” he said in an interview.

The city was prepared for controversy. The health department was ready to start enforcing the requirements before the election, but Mr. O’Leary said his predecessor held off because officials knew it might not sit well with Hispanic voters.

As expected, the crackdown has drawn criticism from advocacy groups, who say the licensing system is unnecessarily complex and biased against Hispanics because the exam is not available in Spanish as it is in surrounding states. In meetings with the mayor, the state’s Latino and Puerto Rican Affairs Commission has urged him to give barbers more time to secure licenses.

“You’ve got a lot of people working, not on the street, not on welfare,” community advocate Juan Marrero said. “They are working as barbers, and they are making money for their families, so don’t push them out, or you’re going to create a worse problem.”

Waterbury saw the largest increase in Hispanic residents of any Connecticut city in the decade leading up to 2010, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures. The Hispanic population grew 47 percent to roughly 34,500 of the city’s 110,000 people.

Waterbury’s public health director, Roseann Wright, said the city has helped some unlicensed barbers find money to pursue licenses and cosmetology schools offering reduced tuition. At a certain point, however, she said state requirements have to be fulfilled for the sake of public safety.

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