California’s Contractors State License Board (CSLB) is at it again.
Since early October, the board’s Statewide Investigative Fraud Team (SWIFT) busted 102 unlicensed contractors in sting operations across the state. SWIFT partners with local law enforcement agencies, which could otherwise be protecting and serving their communities, and sets up sting operations that resemble To Catch a Predator, but unlike the show, neither entertains nor does anything to protect anyone. To bust painters, fencers, and landscapers, SWIFT investigators pose as homeowners looking for basic home improvement projects on internet forums like Craigslist. They also make a point of searching through Craigslist to find unlicensed contractors to arrest as well–posting an advertisement for contract work without having CSLB licensure brings with it the additional misdemeanor charge of “illegal advertising.”
The CSLB says all this in its most recent news release, which boasts that SWIFT criminalized “all first-time offenders” by “posing as homeowners requested bids for home improvement jobs including painting, cabinets, fencing, and flooring. Six of the eight suspects were identified based on ads posted on craigslist.org.”
In justifying this, the CSLB spokesperson wrote that “not only are unlicensed contractors notorious for victimizing consumers, they also undercut legitimately licensed contractors, making it difficult for them to compete.” Breaking down this statement reveals how silly these operations are.
The first justification is that unlicensed contractors are “notorious for victimizing consumers. While certainly some unlicensed contractors do rip-off or steal from consumers, none of the individuals busted in these sting operations are arrested for doing that. They are instead arrested for being unlicensed contractors. There is a reason that the CSLB busts hundreds of people every year: there is a market for contractors willing to work for less than licensed contractors. Fortunately, laws against fraud or theft exist, and in the event that someone, unlicensed contractor or otherwise, commits an action violating those laws, there are law enforcement mechanisms to ensure justice is served. But what justice is served in criminalizing people for being in the same line of work as some other people?
The second part of the CSLB statement reveals what the busts are really all about, and that is protectionism. Unlicensed contractors “undercut legitimately licensed contractors, making it difficult for them to compete.” Why? Because homeowners are generally capable of evaluating the quality and competence of someone willing to paint their house, trim their trees, or put up some drywall, without a need for the CSLB license number to seal the deal.
Overall, it is unlikely that the protectionist, arbitrary, and unnecessary system of occupational licensing is going away anytime soon. As a result, more and more people looking for work are going to have to face the embarrassment of being arrested because they don’t have the resources to jump through irrelevant hoops set forth by the CSLB.
For more on occupational licensing in California, read my Reason Foundation article on the subject. For more on occupational licensing nationwide, read Adam Summers’ policy study here.