Marion residents caught in red tape

Published 12:00 am Thursday, January 20, 2005

Vincent Palestro and Betsy McCausland are exactly the kind of middle-aged married couple Black Belt officials would like to see settle down in the area. When they moved to Marion from New York City in early 2004, they brought with them years of professional experience at the highest levels in their fields, a willingness to work, and a deep love of community. So why is the state of Alabama making it so hard for them to find employment here?

Palestro, an interior design architect, and McCausland, a psychotherapist with a background in social work, have met stiff resistance in their attempt to become licensed in their respective fields in Alabama. Without being licensed, they cannot work.

“I’ve sent my r/sum/ in for several jobs in Alabama,” Palestro says. “These are the sort of positions where everyone who applies is going to be qualified, is going to have experience, and is going to be given the courtesy of a callback.” He shakes his head a bit and says, “I haven’t even been able to get a callback.”

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It’s not the situation Palestro and McCausland envisioned when they first decided to settle in Marion. They first considered leaving the New York area after the 9/11 disaster, during which Palestro said he was “herded off of a stalled commuter train into a park…from there I could see the towers falling.” Thanks to the South’s inexpensive real estate, ties to the couple (both have relatives in the state, and Palestro was born in Anniston), and wealth of the old architecture both cherish, Alabama quickly became a possibility for relocation. A local realtor’s web site led to a visit in person, and although initially first put off by Marion’s size (“and a broken stoplight,” McCausland notes with a laugh) the couple “fell in love with the town, fell in love with the houses,” McCausland says. By the end of the weekend, they had already made their purchase of a home on Lafayette St.

Which just left finding employment, which has proven much more difficult than finding a house. With Palestro’s r/sum/, it shouldn’t be. He has years of designing experience in the cutthroat market of New York and has had designs published in the nationally recognized Home magazine. But Alabama’s licensing process for interior designers, which can often drag on for months, “doesn’t ‘grandfather’ in anything” according to Palestro, referring to the term by which licenses or experience in other states can qualify professionals for a license in Alabama. “It’s just not fluent with the rest of the country. The law as written is so strict it’s being litigated as unconstitutional.”

According to Palestro, interior designers don’t even have to go through a licensing process in most states, New York included. “All of the design documentation is presented to an architect, who looks things over and adds his official seal of approval. It works. There’s no need to have any licensure. I would think Alabama would want to attract professionals, but having such requirements is not an attraction at all. I can’t make a living.”

Things have been just as frustrating for McCausland, who assumed before arriving that her licenses for clinical social work in New York and New Jersey would qualify her to work in Alabama. “My understanding was that New Jersey has been licensing people since licensure was first instituted,” she says. “I asked [state officials] why there was no reciprocity? I was told ‘Alabama’s licensing program predates yours by 10 years,’ and that I could not be grandfathered in.”

Thus McCausland’s years of service-including time as director of a drug rehabilitation clinic, as a therapy instructor in teaching hospitals, and as therapist to troubled youth under court order-amount to nothing in the eyes of the state. To become licensed, she must take a battery of difficult state examinations virtually indistinguishable from those she took in New York nearly 20 years ago. “It would be like taking the SATs all over again, 20 years after you graduated high school,” she says with a sigh.

McCausland and Palestro are quick to point out, however, that they do not blame the state for making the effort to regulate professionals like themselves. “We certainly understand the necessity for professional oversight,” says Palestro, and McCausland agrees. “There’s a lot of charlatans out there,”she says, “but to just negate two decades of experience is bad policy.”

Calls to the appropriate licensing board offices had not been returned as of press time.

The couple questioned Senator Richard Shelby about their dilemma during his recent visit to Marion. The Senator expressed some surprise that they had had such difficulty transferring their previous qualifications, and suggested they take the issue to court. While the couple acknowledges that the Senator’s advice is the proper legal action, as a plan for employment, it’s not enough right now. “If I had the time and money to take it to court,” laughs McCausland, “I wouldn’t need the job!”

Despite the difficulty of finding work, the couple has no plans to relocate in the foreseeable future. “This has become home to us,” says McCausland. “We’ve been welcomed with open arms, black as well as white…I feel like I made more friends here in two weeks than I did in the rest whole life.” Palestro says that though he appreciates the Northeast, “the culture here is just different…it’s just much, much friendlier.” Both are also making plans for finding income, Palestro through the arduous licensing program and McCausland through teaching, including a new part-time position at Judson College.

As much as they enjoy their new home, however, the couple’s employment status will have to change eventually for them to remain in Marion. “We certainly don’t want to move,” says Palestro. “But in the extended future, in the very long term, we may have to if we can’t resolve this.”