WATERBURY, Conn. - A crackdown on unlicensed barbers is stirring a backlash among Latinos, who account for most of the violators in Waterbury.
More established barbers are cheering the hard line taken by Mayor Neil O'Leary, a former police chief who announced this week that unlicensed shops in the Brass City may be forced to close.
Some of the veterans pushed for the city to enforce the regulations, saying anything less would be a disservice to their profession.
But in shops catering to the fast-growing Latino population, some unlicensed barbers say they feel they are being made into scapegoats for business slowing down in other shops.
"It's not our fault that they don't have any customers,'' said Carlos Bermudez, 23. He said he is trying to come up with $2,000 to obtain a barber's license, although he feels he learned to handle clippers just fine growing up in Puerto Rico.
Of the 120 barbershops in Waterbury, the mayor says 20 are unlicensed or employ unlicensed barbers, and 16 of those are run by Latinos. Officials say they directed those barbers more than a year ago to secure state-mandated licenses, and barbers who are not at least in the process of obtaining certification will be asked to leave the city.
O'Leary said it is a matter of public health - like other cities, Waterbury is not immune to outbreaks of head lice - but he is sympathetic to the complaints of established barbers. The mayor, who took office in December, said some of them approached him with concerns during his election campaign.
"I feel very strongly that the people who spent the time and the money and effort to get licenses have a legitimate issue here,'' O'Leary said.
The city was prepared for controversy. The Health Department was ready to start enforcing the requirements before the election. O'Leary said his predecessor held off, since officials knew it might not sit well with Latino voters.
The crackdown has drawn criticism from advocacy groups, who say the licensing system is unnecessarily complex and biased against Hispanics because the exam is not available in Spanish as it is in surrounding states.