The ongoing development of the COVID-19 pandemic and the rise of its Delta and Omicron variants have had a massive impact on regulatory discourse around the world over the past year. A retrospective look at regulatory news from 2021 shows that a handful of trending topics have continued to dominate this conversation. With issues like labor shortages, cyberattacks, and regulatory overreach coming up time and time again, regulators have taken more and more steps to mitigate their consequences and to protect the interests of their constituents.
With that, let’s review some of the biggest issues, themes, and trends that affected regulatory licensing throughout 2021.
Labor shortages everywhere
It’d be an understatement to say labor shortages were pervasive in 2021. And while it would be inaccurate to chalk them up solely to the pandemic, it wouldn’t be wholly untrue, either. Economies around the world continue to be affected by labor shortages that deny or delay the provision of often-essential services to the public.
There’s no shortage of examples: North Carolina is grappling with severe pandemic-related labor shortages, though instructors of cosmetologists, estheticians, natural hair care specialists, and manicurists were relieved by news of a bipartisan bill that, among other things, sought to reduce the 800-hour course requirement for their trades and allow more public and private schools to bring in students.
Oregon temporarily dropped a key college degree requirement for substitute teachers in order to address labor shortages. Bureaucratic hurdles and long processing times created licensing delays contributing to labor shortages among rural Montana schools, prompting school leaders in the area to seek more alternative licensing pathways for nontraditional teachers. British Columbia announced $6.38 million in funding in a bid to combat labor shortages and recruit more health care workers in its northern communities.
Aging occupational licensing standards continue to create labor shortages and licensing mobility issues in Hawaii, where lawmakers are rethinking their whole approach. And a licensing backup contributed to labor shortages in Oregon where there is no shortage of skilled labor available but the Health Licensing Office has remained closed due to the pandemic, slowing examination and licensing activities.
Nationwide, the U.S. and Canada both grappled with pervasive nursing shortages stemming from the pandemic. North Carolina is among the states hardest hit by the nursing shortage and things weren’t much better in California, where a vaccine mandate for health care workers is causing further stress on the system as it deals with surging hospitalizations fueled by the Delta variant. On the other side of the globe, Hong Kong’s legislature passed a law eliminating a local licensing exam ostensibly in order to tackle a doctor shortage.
Indeed, labor shortages cropped up just about everywhere in 2021, which has prompted calls for more systematic reform. One argument in The Hill advocates reforming licensure requirements and looks at how to reduce recidivism and the labor shortage in one fell swoop, while a guest column in The Cap Times calls for the reform of licensing requirements to address teacher shortages.
Labor shortages were also pervasive in Ireland, where a lobby group for foresters asked the country’s Department of Agriculture to intervene in a crisis they say has frozen the forestry industry for over two years and now threatens thousands of jobs. According to representatives from forestry businesses, a backlog of licensing applications is preventing nearly 6,000 forestry workers from getting work.
While it would be convenient to say labor shortages were a hallmark of 2021 alone, with the onset of the Omicron variant and the lack of coherent responses to such shortages, they’re likely to impact economies around the world well into 2022, if not for longer.
Painful as labor shortages may be, they don’t compromise our fragile security networks, which can’t be said of the surge of cyberattacks we saw throughout 2021 and indeed since the onset of the pandemic. While cyberattacks may not create the pandemic’s death toll, their potential for damage is vast–not only are personal information and government records made vulnerable by cyberattacks, but when they hit health care facilities, their potential for damage expands. Regulators are not safe, especially after this massive attack in 2020.
Like 2020 before it, 2021 was defined by cyberattacks. Take Colonial Pipeline, the largest fuel pipeline in the U.S., which suffered a cyberattack that disrupted fuel supplies all along the East Coast of the United States for several days. CNA Insurance, one of America’s largest insurance firms, faced a critical cyberattack that led to the termination of trading for a short period. The attackers hacked CNA’s network and encrypted 15,000 devices, including devices used by remote employees.
The huge cyberattack plaguing Newfoundland and Labrador’s health care system underlined a need to protect personal health information, according to experts. “I think that we’re about 10 years behind in looking at this in a very sophisticated way,” Paul-Emile Cloutier, president and CEO of HealthCareCAN, told CBC News in an interview. Southern Ohio Medical Center in Portsmouth, Ohio, also dealt with a cyberattack a week after it was forced into electronic health record (EHR) downtime procedures.
In May 2021, Ireland’s health service was forced to shut its entire computer system down in response to a “significant” and “sophisticated” ransomware attack that sought to compromise data throughout their network. In the same month, Toshiba Tec, a division of Japanese technology company Toshiba, reported a similar attack, and officials from both the Health Service Executive and Toshiba blamed DarkSide, a hacker group with an alleged history of cyberattacks. In New York, Buffalo Public Schools were forced to briefly cancel remote learning in March 2021 after a similar ransomware attack.
And this is to say nothing of the Microsoft Exchange Server attacks of the year’s beginning, during which hackers found network vulnerabilities and used them to gain access to private email accounts and install malware to facilitate more security breaches. The Microsoft Threat Intelligence Center (MSTIC) suspected the attacks to be the work of HAFNIUM, a group that Microsoft alleges is backed by the state of China. The Office of the Secretary to Canada’s Governor General (OSGG) has also reported unauthorized access to its internal network.
In a Fortune article discussing the world’s cybercrime crisis, writer Meredith Balkus explains some of the confusion surrounding cybercrime between world governments. The piece notes that as network technology has developed, many small-to-medium-sized businesses, enterprises that wouldn’t ordinarily take strict security measures, have found themselves to be easy targets for hackers looking to create national security threats. As cybercrime continues to surge in the coming years, world governments and regulators will have to work together, to the best of their abilities, to identify and protect against network attacks.
Military family support and licensing mobility expand
The United States has seen a large political push to expand occupational licensing opportunities for military veterans in recent years. For example, the Pennsylvania General Assembly in November unanimously passed a package of legislation meant to improve the lives of veterans. The bill, which now heads to the senate, eases the professional licensing process for veterans and calls for naming more veterans and their spouses to licensure boards, mandating specific guidelines, speeding up the application review process, and waiving initial licensure fees for military spouses relocating to the state, among other measures.
In Massachusetts, Governor Charlie Baker passed legislation aiming to make occupational licensing processes smoother for military families transferring into the state. And perhaps as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, governments throughout the U.S. and the world at large have made more significant efforts to expand multijurisdictional licensing opportunities for professionals under their purview. A Mutual Recognition Amendment Bill proposed in Western Australia would allow individuals registered or licensed for an occupation in another jurisdiction to do the same work in the state without additional fees or recognitions.
In the U.S., Vermont joined the growing list of states that are easing barriers for individuals moving between states when the Office of Professional Regulation (OPR) worked to streamline the licensing process for those who have out-of-state experience in their field with the Fast-Track Endorsement program. Since implementation, more than 850 licenses spanning 40 different license categories have been issued through the expedited process, including nearly 500 nursing licenses.
In a similar move, Oklahoma signed the Universal Licensing Recognition Act into law, allowing licensed professionals from other states to work in Oklahoma without initiating a new licensing process. Workers moving to Oklahoma can apply for licensing or certification for an occupation with a similar scope of practice by supplying proof of residency in the state or proof of marriage to an active-duty member of the military being relocated to the state, according to the bill.
New Jersey made similar moves for nurses, implementing the Nurse Licensure Compact (NLC) to allow registered nurses and licensed practical/vocational nurses living in NLC states to practice in person or via telehealth in both their home state and elsewhere.
It’s difficult to gauge how much of the push for expanded multijurisdictional licensing opportunities has stemmed from the pandemic. But efforts in this direction from Western Australia and in U.S. states like Oklahoma and Vermont, as well as efforts to relax licensing restrictions for military families in other U.S. states, seem to indicate a trend toward more accommodating license processes overall, both throughout the country and around the world.
Calls for licensing reform
In 2021, there were multiple calls to rein in what some see as regulatory overreach and other calls to simply streamline licensing processes. For example, the Buckeye Institute asked Ohio’s Supreme Court to hear a case challenging a lower court ruling directing courts to defer to the State Board of Registration for Professional Engineers and Surveyors’ interpretation of a law on engineering certifications. The institute asked the court to effectively “end the practice of judicial deference to government agencies’ interpretation of law.”
Elsewhere, regulators were found to be poorly monitored and under budget. A legislative audit in West Virginia found the state’s licensing boards closed their budget year with huge surpluses. The audit said most of the state’s 791 special revenue accounts for licensing panels lacked strict limits on balance amounts, suggesting state lawmakers impose maximum balances and grant legislative authority to “sweep” excess funds and redirect the money to other state funding needs.
Three bills stalled in North Carolina’s Senate Rules Committee could reduce red tape for small service businesses, The Richmond Observer reported. One bill would curb the licensure process behind teaching cosmetic arts such as hairstyling. In New Mexico, Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham signed an order meant to help the state modernize its regulatory system by easing the burden on professional licensing. The executive order calls for a review of licensing rules and the production of a report outlining how the state can further streamline processes and reduce costs.
Indeed, calls for licensing reform could be found in just about every state, likely prompted in part by labor shortages and perceived regulatory overreach.
Marijuana licensing struggles continue
As efforts to legalize marijuana for medical and/or recreational use continue to succeed in the United States, regulators throughout the country continue to face new challenges in developing markets and ensuring a fair and non-exploitative rollout for legalized cannabis. For example, certain states where marijuana is only medically legal have seen their licensing systems abused by doctors writing inordinate numbers of prescriptions.
To avoid problems like this, the appeals court in Michigan affirmed a two-year suspension for a doctor who approved an alarming 22,000 medical marijuana certificates in under 12 months. Experts deemed it wasn’t possible for the doctor to conduct exams, get medical histories, and take all other needed steps, adding he would have to see 60 patients a day, seven days a week, during a one-year period. And in Montana, lawmakers told state regulators to reconsider certain potential rules around recreational marijuana sales, including a proposal to ban those with criminal convictions from the past three years from working in the industry.
A former mayor in Massachusetts was sentenced to six years in federal prison after being convicted of soliciting and accepting bribes from aspiring cannabis entrepreneurs. The mayor was connected to a scheme to defraud investors as well as extort marijuana vendors and represents a marijuana licensing problem that is likely to continue.
Because of the U.S.’s unique situation regarding cannabis legalization, wherein the federal government has the drug scheduled as a controlled substance but individual states are able to legalize it at their own discretion, regulators will likely continue to face difficult decisions as they roll out legal marijuana markets in the years to come.
More of the same in 2022?
If the development of the new Omicron variant is any indication, licensing and regulatory discussions around the world will likely continue to be affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, perhaps for years to come. At the same time, regulators will have to watch for developments in the field of cybersecurity, in addition to handling the burgeoning discourse on topics like multijurisdictional licensing and marijuana legalization.
Paul Leavoy is Content Director at Thentia and has been writing on government and enterprise management technology, regulation, and public policy for over 15 years.