- - Thursday, November 26, 2020

In April of this year, Mississippi’s unemployment rate reached an all-time historic high of 15.4% — with more than 186,000 people out of work. 

In a pandemic-stricken country, this is far from unique across the states and people have felt the impact everywhere. In listening to my constituents, my family and neighbors, and others in the Magnolia State, many have expressed concern in making ends meet. And sometimes, government is the problem instead of the answer. 

This is why in the Mississippi Senate we introduced the Military Family Freedom Act, authored by Sen. Chuck Younger, a Republican, and approved by the governor in June. This legislation was a first step in getting government out of the way of opportunity. The act breaks ground to facilitate reciprocity in state licensure programs for military spouses and recognizes out-of-state occupational licenses for those individuals.

This may seem like a non-issue for many working Americans, but for important professions such as respiratory care therapists, medical radiation technicians and even hair braiders, these occupational licenses are required to work in many states, and sometimes even localities, where license requirements vary.

Even more notably, the act recognizes work experience to obtain occupational licenses in Mississippi. States are unique, and so are their requirements to obtain licenses. In some cases, a license may not be required at all. Now in Mississippi, professionals can apply work experience toward a license in Mississippi. Iowa and Mississippi are the only states to recognize work experience, but more should follow suit.

This legislation, however, only specifically affects military spouses and family members, who frequently follow their loved ones across state lines to keep families together. In a state like Mississippi, with less than 12,000 active military personnel making up less than 0.5% of the state population, this is a first step to keep government out of the way. 

It is not the government’s job to hold someone back from their career and livelihood. It is the government’s job to implement solutions proven to work, and sometimes that means cutting the red tape. In 2020, we faced a new reality which called for exactly this.

COVID-19 has prompted governors and legislatures to recognize occupational licenses when applying in a new state, especially America’s health care workers. Indiana suspended licensing requirements for medical providers from other states. New Jersey temporarily allowed medical licensing boards to speed up out-of-state licensing recognition. And here in Mississippi, we allowed in-state patients to be treated by telemedicine from out-of-state physicians.

States across the map are realizing that red tape does not just hold up paperwork — it holds up American workers. One of the solutions is to recognize the significant experience and occupational licenses people already have, thereby empowering them to keep working in Mississippi. This benefits families, and it benefits employers, consumers and communities with an influx of skilled labor.

We should all learn a lesson from the pandemic playbook and take this attitude with us forward as we build our society stronger for generations to come. The need for occupational licensing reform does not start and end with COVID-19. Professionals do not lose their experience, education and training just by crossing a state line. In Mississippi, we have made a small legislative stride to ensure the time and personal expense to obtain a professional license is not diminished. In the Magnolia State and across the map, we have an opportunity and responsibility to make this the “new normal” for all. 

• Josh Harkins is a member of the Mississippi State Senate and represents Mississippi’s District 20. Follow him on twitter @SenatorHarkins.

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