The City Council’s Public Safety, Civil Rights and Technology Committee, of which I am vice-chair, voted (5 in favor – Harrell, Licata, Clark, Godden & O’Brien, with Bagshaw abstaining) Wednesday (6/5/’13) to approve Council Bill 117796. The bill is intended to reduce unfair employment barriers to those with criminal backgrounds. The full Council will vote on the measure on Monday, June 10th. The bill can just as well be called an anti-discrimination bill due to the number of otherwise qualified job seekers who are denied work solely because they have a criminal record.
The business community raised a number of concerns about the legislation as originally proposed. Councilmember Bruce Harrell, who sponsored the legislation through his Committee, worked with them and supporters of the legislation to achieve legislation that could pass the Council and still be effective.
In that process a number of significant compromises were made, such as not requiring employers to wait until they interviewed an applicant before asking about their criminal background. For instance, the City of Seattle prohibits us from asking about an applicant’s criminal background until a conditional offer of employment is made, as do many other jurisdictions.
Also, an employer will not be required to demonstrate a “direct relationship” between the criminal background and the job that might have been offered before declining to hire, rather they need only show a “legitimate business reason” for not hiring. I also would have preferred that employers could not refuse to hire someone based solely on conduct relating to an arrest even if there is no conviction.
Still, the bill presents an improved environment because, as advocates point out, it does “ban the box” on applications (removes the check-box question on applications asking applicants if they have a criminal record), allows the City to levy fines and collect attorney fees from the most egregious violators, and empowers the Seattle Office of Civil Rights (SOCR) to conduct investigations and to enforce the law.
Additional Employer Concerns
An initial concern raised by employers was that federal employment law already regulates hiring people with criminal backgrounds and that a Seattle law was unnecessary. However, advocates point out that federal law only applies to minorities, due to evidence of their disproportionate treatment by our judicial system.
George Allen expressed another concern – over having SOCR enforce the law. He represents the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce. During the Committee’s May 15th discussion he said that “perception sometimes drives a person’s activity as well as data,” suggesting that SOCR might not be seen as the best city department to enforce this legislation with employers. However, SOCR has rarely fined employers for not following the law and has never assessed rule violators for attorney fees. In response, I suggested that the Chamber would seem best equipped to address its members’ misperceptions by educating them on the facts of this new law and on SOCR’s past enforcement practices, such as those exercised for the City’s Paid Sick and Safe Leave law.
Employers also expressed concern that this law might allow SOCR to initiate enforcement actions without having received complaints from job applicants. In response, the committee adopted Councilmember O’Brien’s proposal that SOCR can enforce the law only if it has received a complaint or when it has collected substantial and verifiable information of a violation.
The Committee pledged to increase SOCR’s budget to allow for adequate staffing of education and outreach programs offered to employers seeking guidance and information regarding the new law. The law takes effect on November 1st of this year.
Other Efforts to Ban the Box
The non-partisan, not-for-profit National Law Project, which conducts research and advocates on issues affecting low-wage and unemployed workers, reports that around the country workers are often plagued by old or minor records and discouraged from applying because a “box” on job applications requires criminal history information that often leads employers to dismiss applicants at the outset.
Some 65 million Americans, or one in four adults, have a criminal record that may show up on a routine background check report.
Since 2011, 20 cities and 3 counties have responded to this challenge by adopting ban the box and holding the public sector out as a model employer. The most recent additions to the now-50 cities and counties that have adopted the policy include Kansas City, Atlanta, Tampa, Canton and Richmond, Virginia.
Worcester, Maine requires the person viewing a prospective employee’s background report be trained to do so and that they apply a list of factors to consider. Jacksonville, Florida actively encourages ex-offenders to apply. And Hartford, Connecticut prohibits consideration of arrests which did not lead to conviction.
When it comes to private employers, Seattle now joins Hawaii, Massachusetts, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Newark, New Jersey and Minnesota as enacting some version of a“ban the box” law. The Minnesota law takes effect January 1, 2014.
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