Salamata Sylla styles her customers’ hair the way her ancestors did in Senegal hundreds of years ago.
The African-style hair braider says what she does is a talent.
Her elaborate, labor-intensive styles cost $60 to $250 and take five to eight hours to complete. Among them are the Goddess Braid, which, she says, conveys that the wearer is a person of accomplishment, and the Half Cornrow-Half Afro, a style she remembers her grandmother wearing.
Last June, Sylla almost had to give up her business when two inspectors from the state Department of Licensing told her that in order to braid hair for pay, she’d need to get a cosmetology license.
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On Tuesday, Sylla filed a federal lawsuit against the Department of Licensing challenging its cosmetology-licensing requirements.
Her suit is part of a coordinated campaign by the Institute of Justice, a national foundation that opposes increased government regulation on small businesses such as hers.
Two other lawsuits were also filed Tuesday by African-style hair braiders in Missouri and Arkansas.
The Virginia-based Institute for Justice’s Braiding Freedom Initiative has won such challenges in seven other states, including Ohio, California and Utah, where in 2012 a U.S. judge called the state licensing requirement unconstitutional.
“A person should be allowed to use their natural gift to make a living,” Sylla said.
Last June, when the inspectors visited her Kent business, Sally’s African Hair Braiding, an inspector saw her using hair extensions and assumed she used glue.
She was actually braiding in the extensions.
Sylla learned Monday the Licensing Department wouldn’t pursue her case. Department spokeswoman Christine Anthony said there was confusion on the inspectors’ part about the need for a license.
Anthony said the agency was supposed to send Sylla a letter in April letting her know the case was closed, but because of a miscommunication in the department it wasn’t sent then.
Sylla filed her lawsuit anyway.
Sylla’s attorney, Bill Maurer, said the goal of the lawsuit is to get that statement written into the law.
“We’re attempting to knock down barriers and get rid of unreasonable government regulations that prevent people from earning an honest living,” he said.
Anthony said nobody in her department could discuss the lawsuit, because no one had seen it.
In Washington, it can cost up to $20,000 to get a cosmetology license. To do so, an applicant must take 1,600 hours of classes and pass two exams.
Maurer said the overreach of regulatory agencies creates a disincentive for people to start businesses.
Sylla, who has had her business for two years, is a single mother with three children.
“This job is what helps me keep my dignity at the end of the day,” she said.
Material from Seattle Times reporter Zahra Farah and The Associated Press was used in this report.