California Bill Seeks Certification For Pet Groomers

The Legislature is considering creating a voluntary certification program for pet groomers. But groomers fear that voluntary certification is just a precursor to eventual licensing.

The Legislature is considering creating a voluntary certification program for pet groomers. But groomers fear that voluntary certification is just a precursor to eventual licensing.

Dog groomer Jose Miguel Nunez grooms a poodle named Tinker at the Dog House in North Hollywood.

California already licenses furniture upholsterers, private investigators and recreation guides.

Now it wants to regulate pet groomers.

In a state that leads the country in the number of professions requiring a license, a bill moving through the Legislature has struck a nerve among those who clip Fido and Fluffy.

Sen. Juan Vargas (D-San Diego), author of the proposed legislation, wants to provide pet owners "peace of mind" by creating a voluntary certification program. Groomers would have to complete about 900 hours of training and pay an as-yet unspecified fee to be certified by the state — a designation that amounts to a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.

Vargas says the measure, known as SB 969, is intended to protect pets from untrained groomers. He said he drafted the bill after learning about lacerations, broken bones — and in one case, death — that some animals suffered during trips to their barbers.

"The pets really are the silent victims," Vargas said. "They can't tell you what happens."

Vargas' initial aim was to force California's pet groomers to obtain a state license that would have required them to pass an exam and carry insurance. But that proposal lost much of its bite after facing opposition from small-business groups. A similar bill stalled in 2005.

But even the watered-down version has some groomers growling. They fear that voluntary certification is just a precursor to eventual licensing that would snag California's estimated 11,000 pet barbers in more red tape.

"I want the government out of my salon," said Johnny Ray, co-owner of the Dog House in North Hollywood. "It's just a money grab."

The dust-up underscores a larger national debate about professional licensing and how to protect consumers without stifling entrepreneurship. Few dispute the public interest in regulating surgeons, lawyers and others who could do lasting harm without the requisite skills.

But licensing has mushroomed over the years to include all manner of trades. In Louisiana, florists must pass a test to earn a license to operate. Fortune tellers in Annapolis, Md., need to be licensed to practice their crafts. And, in Mississippi, hair braiders need to be registered with that state's health department.

California has about 177 occupations requiring a license, the most of any state, according to the most recent comprehensive count by the Reason Foundation, a libertarian-leaning think tank. (A separate review by The Times found the number has stayed roughly the same since that 2007 survey.) The national average is 92, said Adam Summers, a senior policy analyst with the organization.

Summers, who has studied the rise in occupational licensing, says this type of professional regulation stifles competition, drives up prices and is particularly burdensome to low-income entrepreneurs trying to earn a living in service trades.

Some have fought back. In the late 1990s, a group of African American hair-care specialists successfully sued to overturn California cosmetology laws requiring them to undergo 1,600 hours of training and pass an exam to braid hair. A Utah hair braider currently is waging a similar fight against that state's cosmetology board.

"Mandatory licensing tends to impose arbitrary standards," Summers said. "It's a monopolist system that doesn't necessarily improve quality of services and increases the cost of business."

In recent years, tens of thousands of laid-off Californians have been forced into self-employment. Critics contend that raising barriers to entry in fields such as dog grooming is counterproductive in a state where unemployment is 10.8%, the third-highest in the nation.

The proposed legislation comes at a time when pet owners are spending more money on their furry companions. Last year, Americans spent $3.79 billion on grooming and boarding services for their pets, up from $3.5 billion the year before, according to the American Pet Products Assn. The group projects spending in 2012 will grow to $4.1 billion.

Groomers have found steady work in the animal-care industry, where employment is projected to grow 23% from 2010 to 2020, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The bill, currently working its way through the state Assembly, cleared the Business, Professions, and Consumer Protection Assembly committee last week on a 5-4 vote. It passed the Senate with a 22-14 vote, largely along party lines. It's next scheduled to appear before the Assembly Appropriations committee. No hearing date has been set.

State Sen. Joel Anderson (R-San Diego), who voted against the bill, called it unnecessary.

"Why is a state law needed to set up a voluntary certification program?" Anderson said through a spokesman. "It could all be done without the heavy hand of government, such as how the Better Business Bureau operates. One has to ask with a budget deficit of $17 billion why is the majority party focused on Fido's hair and nail care?"

Jose Miguel Nuñez, a dog groomer with four years' experience, said he opposed the bill, saying it was unnecessary and would create a distinction between groomers who sought the state's certification and those who didn't.

"I don't think the state's backing should give people more confidence," the North Hollywood resident said. "A piece of paper won't change anything.