Agency, professional groups blame lawmakers for licensing backlog

Huge jump in applications swamps beleaguered staff

By: - March 17, 2022 6:30 am
Physical therapist assistant

A physical therapist assistant at work. Physical therapists and physical therapist assistants are among hundreds of professions requiring an occupational license in Wisconsin. (Wisconsin Technical Colleges | Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 )

Last year Angela Lecours took a step that she hoped would help prepare her for a new career as a hair stylist — something that “has always been my passion,” she says.

She had moved to southeastern Wisconsin from Tomahawk and prepared to enroll in an apprenticeship program. Dave Hagemeier, who owns a group of franchise hair salons in Milwaukee’s northern and western suburbs and regularly sponsors apprentices under a state-approved program, was happy to hire her in one of his shops.

But it took months before Lecours could get her apprenticeship license, because of a roadblock: two convictions a decade ago for drunk driving. Investigators for the Department of Safety and Professional Standards (DSPS) required her to submit police reports and court records for the two cases, including receipts to prove she had paid her fines.

Hagemeier helped her navigate the process, and in August, three months after she had applied, Lecours’ license finally came through. It’s something that the salon owner says he has done for more than dozen of his own employees and dozens of others besides.

“I advocate for diversity and inclusion,” Hagemeier says. “We have a population being unfairly marginalized.” But he’s frustrated, he adds, by the delays that such applications have required.

Delays at DSPS, which issues occupational licenses for hundreds of professions in Wisconsin, aren’t just a problem for people whose backgrounds require a legal review. At a Capitol hearing Wednesday, representatives for professions that include social work, psychology and other health care-related fields all told of long-backlogged license applications.

The problem has been growing for years, witnesses told the Assembly Committee on Regulatory Licensing Reform. And in the course of five hours of testimony, there was a recurring explanation: The agency is understaffed even as it is responsible for an ever-increasing number of professions, and it hasn’t been able to staff up on its own to meet the demand.

Speaking on behalf of the Wisconsin Psychology Association, Bruce Erdmann described the frustration of psychology license applicants who faced delays in getting their applications approved and difficulty in reaching agency personnel by phone or email.

Those complaints were echoed by representatives for social workers, physical therapists, occupational therapists, chiropractors, marriage and family therapists and the private security industry.

Speakers related stories of professionals who had opted to move to other states with faster approval processes. Brian Rosbury, a vice president at the private security firm Allied Universal, said that some applications the company had filed for prospective employees had taken so long to approve that by the time they had cleared the agency and the company had contacted the applicant to complete a job offer, the person had opted to take a different job.

Marc Herstand has been the executive director for the National Association of Social Workers Wisconsin chapter since 1993. “In my 29 years, I’ve never seen the backlog as bad as it is now,” Herstand testified. “I’ve had members that have lost jobs they wanted to apply for because they couldn’t get their license quick enough.”

He put the blame largely on lawmakers, however, rather than the department, which has seen the number of license applications steadily increase.

“I hope that this hearing is a wake up call to the state Legislature,” Herstand said.  “You just have to provide the staff into the department. You can’t expect the department to handle a doubling of applications with all the complexity and expect things not to go wrong. That’s just the reality of it.”

He criticized the Legislature for rejecting budget requests from Gov. Tony Evers to add staff.

A Legislative Fiscal Bureau memo Wednesday stated that of 20 added positions in the department that Gov. Tony Evers sought in the 2019-21 budget, the Legislature authorized two, and of 13 the governor requested in the 2021-23 budget, the Legislature again authorized two.  

Herstand noted that the agency is funded by license fees rather than state tax dollars. “You need to give them the authority to hire the staff they need,” the social worker told lawmakers on the committee  

Mike Tierney, the DSPS legislative liaison and the last witness to testify at Wednesday’s hearing, said license applications have more than doubled in less than a decade, from 57,000 in the 2013-15 biennium to 122,000 in the 2019-2021 biennium. “That trend does not show signs of letting up,” he added, with department projections indicating that in the two-year period now underway, there will likely be more than 144,000 license applications.

“The Legislature needs to allow the fees people pay to be used for their intended purpose,” Tierney said.

Over the course of the administration of former Gov. Scott Walker, he noted, $37 million of the department’s revenue was diverted back to the state’s general fund instead of being used to bolster the department’s resources.

Tierney said the department’s call center that takes inquiries from applicants has six people, too few to respond to the volume of calls that have ranged from more than 3,000 to as high as 10,000 in a single week. Department attempts to boost staffing with limited-term employment (LTE) positions haven’t worked. “Two blocks away we have a Target — they pay more, they have benefits,” Tierney said.

LTEs also aren’t suitable for processing license applications because that task requires attention to detail that takes time to develop. “We truly need 10 people who are well versed in the licensure requirements of a wide range of occupations to make sure people are provided with the correct information firsthand,” Tierney said.

With the Legislature’s funding for the agency falling short of what was needed, Evers has put about $10 million in federal pandemic relief aid into DSPS, Tierney said, to be used for staffing as well as for technology upgrades.

Requirements for legal review of an applicant’s past court record has been another subject that DSPS has asked the Legislature to change without success, he added, both in the 2019-2020 legislative biennium and again in the 2021-2022 biennium.

The agency has wanted to be able to exclude offenses such as underage drinking, nonviolent ordinance violations and some other nonviolent crimes from having to be vetted before a license is granted. “Review of these offenses greatly adds to the workload of the legal team and delays all reviews,” Tierney said. But those can only be ended with a change in state law.

Rep. Shae Sortwell (R-Two Rivers), the committee chair, acknowledged witnesses’ concerns about staffing but appeared largely uninterested in the problems they described. At one point he suggested that enabling the vast majority of staff to work remotely during the pandemic might be the reason for their struggles.

Tierney had already anticipated and rejected such an argument in his testimony. The department “processed more licenses last year than they’ve ever processed before,” Tierney said before Sortwell had raised the question. “What matters to our customers is that there are a few dollars to provide them with the level of service they paid for and have every right to expect — not where employees work, but the number of employees we’re allowed to have in place to get the job done for them.”

Sortwell asked Tierney about requests from the Evers administration for more funding and staff as demand increased after 2019.

“What changed in 2019?” Sortwell asked.

Tierney replied that when the Evers administration arrived, “we analyzed what was going on in the department.”

“And it couldn’t be as efficient?” Sortwell asked.

“I’m not going to answer that,” Tierney retorted.

Before Sortwell could move on, Tierney added that DSPS staff from the Walker administration who remained in the department when Evers took office reported they had been told to underplay the fiscal impact of bills that affected the agency.

When a bill relating to DSPS was introduced and the department was asked for a fiscal note, “even if they knew they were going to require more staffing — they were told, instructed, to say it’s revenue neutral,” Tierney said.

“We came in and said, ‘You know, [we’re] taking on these additional responsibilities as a department, but yet, we’re not seeing that we have the staff to do that,’” he continued. “And that’s one of the things that we’ve been working to do is provide honest fiscal estimates.”

At the end of the hearing, Rep. Jonathan Brostoff (D-Milwaukee), the senior Democrat on the committee, issued a statement castigating the Republican lawmakers in part for holding the hearing after the Legislature concluded its regular 2022 floor sessions.

If Republicans actually wanted to help solve the licensing backlog at DSPS, they would have held this hearing at the beginning of this session, giving us plenty of time to engage with stakeholders, come up with real solutions, and implement those solutions,” Brostoff stated. “If they wanted to solve the backlog, they would’ve reached out to DSPS and the Governor, had straightforward conversations, and provided the funding and staffing that DSPS needs and has requested the last two budget cycles.”

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Conservative groups push to cut back on licensing 

Wednesday’s hearing began with testimony from two conservative groups that have called for relaxing occupational licensing regulations, the Badger Institute and the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty.

“There are legislative fixes, already adopted in other states with bipartisan support, that can expedite the process, eliminate red tape and establish processes for determining if these government permission slips to work are even necessary in the first place,” said Michael Jahr, vice president of the Badger Institute.

Both organizations endorsed Senate Bill 469, which would automatically recognize occupational licenses from other states for applicants who move to Wisconsin and have a clean record. They also called for a system of provisional licenses for qualified applicants awaiting their final approval.

With the Legislature having completed its regular floor session for the rest of 2022, however, neither proposal is likely to be enacted this year. SB-469 never got out of committee, and a provisional license bill, SB-232, passed the Senate in January but died in the Assembly.

Interim licensing for psychologists who are licensed elsewhere and transferring to Wisconsin is part of an updated psychology licensing bill enacted in the just-concluded legislative biennium, but it is still too new to assess its impact, according to Bruce Erdmann, who testified for the Wisconsin Psychological Association. But Erdmann cautioned against granting a provisional license to other new psychology license applicants. “Or a training license?” said Rep. Dan Knodl (R-Germantown), who had raised the suggestion.

“That is not a good idea,” said Erdmann. “You do have to have some quality controls and you do need to make sure that the applicant is actually who they are, who they say they are, and that they have the qualifications to [do] the job.”

Yet another challenge that the Department of Safety and Professional Services (DSPS) faces might be the breadth of its responsibilities, said an industry representative who also testified Wednesday.

DSPS was formed in 2011 when the economic development duties of the Wisconsin Department of Commerce were transferred to the new Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. The change left behind regulatory functions in the commerce department, including licensing workers in the building trades such as plumbers and electricians as well as reviewing building plans and overseeing the manufactured home industry.

Those former commerce offices were merged with the Department of Regulation and Licensing to create the DSPS.

It was an attempt at streamlining, said Amy Bliss, executive director of the Wisconsin Housing Alliance, which represents businesses that make and sell manufactured homes. But, in Bliss’ opinion, the agency represents too many entities and is spread too thin.  “Whether this is due to underfunding of technology, lack of employees or other reasons — the streamlining of processes is not working,” Bliss said.

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Erik Gunn
Erik Gunn

Deputy Editor Erik Gunn reports and writes on work and the economy, health policy and related subjects, for the Wisconsin Examiner. He spent 24 years as a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine, Isthmus, The Progressive, BNA Inc., and other publications, winning awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, beat coverage, business writing, and commentary. An East Coast native, he previously covered labor for The Milwaukee Journal after reporting for newspapers in upstate New York and northern Illinois. He's a graduate of Beloit College (English Comp.) and the Columbia School of Journalism. Off hours he is the Examiner's resident Springsteen and Jackson Browne fanboy and model railroad nerd.

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