D.C. Council Votes to “Ban the Box”

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By: LeMara Perry
Ban the Box Photo
After years of failed attempts, the D.C. council finally voted last month to provide job applicants who have criminal records new protections against the discriminatory practice of employers automatically disqualifying them solely because of their criminal history.

In a 12 to 1 vote, council members gave initial approval to the Fair Criminal Record Screening Act, which restricts employers’ use of a job applicant’s criminal history.
The bill, introduced by Councilmember Tommy Wells, Chairperson of the Committee on Judiciary and Public Safety, allows employers to ask about an applicant’s criminal history only after a conditional offer of employment.

Initially, in order to get the bill through, Wells made two changes, as stated in the Washington Post. First, employers would be able to consider an applicant’s criminal history after the first interview, instead of after an offer of employment is made. Second, there will not be a provision giving applicants the right to sue over alleged discrimination. This will instead be investigated by the Office of Human Rights.

However, an amendment introduced by Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie, restored that part of the original bill.

“This is critically important,” McDuffie said in a statement. “It allows returning citizens to be judged on their merits prior to consideration of their past.”

Among the other changes to the bill was the removal of a clause requiring employers to provide a written statement of denial and the removal of a provision allowing applicants to see over alleged discrimination. There’s also an exception in the bill for “businesses and facilities that provide services or care to minors or vulnerable adults.”

“Moving forward, I am comforted by the fact that these amendments were the result of a collaborative process which included advocates and the business community,” McDuffie said. “It is my hope that these changes will create a more productive workforce and help employ many of our returning citizens who are ready, willing and able to work.”

The bill now heads to Mayor Vince Gray for a signature and then to Congress for review.

“Gaining employment is one of the most significant barriers facing returning citizens,” Wells said in a statement. “This legislation is a vital step toward addressing that challenge and I commend my colleagues for their diligence and commitment to ensuring passage of this bill prior to Council recess.”

According to a 2011 article by DCentic, about 60,000 D.C. residents – 10 percent of the city’s population — have criminal records, and half of them are unemployed, and nearly 8,000 more return each year.

The biggest challenge for them to re-integrate is the job market – not that there are no jobs, but that ex-cons are not considered for many because of their criminal past.
The D.C. Chamber of Commerce worked with City Council, ex-convicts and other advocates on the bill.

The chamber pushed for employers to be allowed to ask about criminal history sooner in the hiring process, after the initial interview. But council ultimately shot that down, although they were successful in the removal of a clause that would require employers to provide a written statement to applicants detailing why they were denied employment.

D.C. Chamber of Commerce President and CEO, Harry Wingo, said that measure would have left businesses vulnerable to litigation.

“No one walked away with everything they wanted,” said Wingo. This is the essence of true compromise, he added.

The agreement that was reached will ultimately benefit businesses, while helping ex-cons re-integrate into society, said Wingo.

“Human capital is critical. To have so many folks who are in the city, they’ve had a run in with the law but yet they’re talented, they can serve businesses well,” explained Wingo.
Councilmembers assured that background checks will continue to legitimately disqualify certain applicants from certain jobs, especially jobs that work with specific populations — kids and vulnerable adults.

For example, anyone convicted of a sexual assault, child abuse or neglect will be excluded from jobs that come in contact with children.
“If it’s related to the job, let’s say you held up a bank and you’re applying for a teller, well, then can say, ‘We’re not comfortable with that, so, we’re not going to hire you,'” said Wells.
Four states have Ban the Box laws on the books, and the governor of Illinois is also expected to sign one into law.

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