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Originally published June 4, 2013 at 9:15 PM | Page modified June 5, 2013 at 11:51 AM

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Seattle may limit use of crime checks in hiring

The Seattle City Council is considering legislation to limit when employers can ask applicants about their criminal history. The goal is to open doors to jobs for ex-offenders, but business advocates worry about safety and liability.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Marquez Taylor was 17 when he pleaded guilty to a felony robbery. He served his time in juvenile detention and then completed a yearlong training course in information technology, followed by a six-month internship at a local video-game company.

But when he went to apply for full-time work, three different companies revoked their job offers when he disclosed his criminal record.

“I’ve proven that I’m responsible and accountable, that I have skills to offer a business, but I’m not given the opportunity to show that I can do the work,” said Taylor, now 19 years old.

On Wednesday, a Seattle City Council committee will consider legislation that would prohibit companies from asking an applicant about any criminal background until after an initial screening. The legislation is expected to go to the full council for a vote Monday.

The bill, which has drawn strenuous opposition from some business groups, would ban the box on applications that asks job seekers if they’ve ever been convicted of a crime. Employers could consider a conviction later in the hiring process and reject an applicant, but only if there’s a legitimate business reason to do so.

The legislation doesn’t apply to jobs that involve access to vulnerable people, including children, the disabled or the elderly. It also doesn’t cover law-enforcement positions.

But the bill does authorize the city Office of Civil Rights to investigate complaints of discrimination brought by people turned down for a job solely because of their criminal history. The office could fine employers as much as $750 for a second offense and $1,000 for subsequent violations.

“For decades I’ve seen people who are trying hard to turn their lives around be permanently labeled a criminal,” said Councilmember Bruce Harrell, who is sponsoring the proposal. “We are not trying to force any employer to hire someone they think will cause harm to customers or other employees. What we are trying to do is give people otherwise qualified for a job a foot in the door and an opportunity to explain the circumstances of their convictions.”

Harrell is also a candidate for mayor and has pointed to his work on social-justice issues as distinguishing him from the eight other candidates. The criminal-history bill is considered a test of his ability to bring opposing groups together and translate his ideals into legislation.

Nationally, an estimated 65 million people — one in four adults — has a felony or misdemeanor record that may show up on a routine background check, according to the National Employment Law Project.

The legislation before the City Council is part of a national movement sometimes known as “Ban the Box,” because it eliminates the checkoff box on many job applications that asks about criminal history. Fifty cities and eight states have passed laws limiting what employers — mostly public agencies but also some private businesses — can ask on job applications about prior convictions.

The city of Seattle adopted a personnel rule in 2009 for city employment that prohibits any questions about criminal history until after a conditional offer of employment is made. Washington state has a similar provision for its open positions. The pending legislation would extend the ban on asking about criminal history on a job application to private employers within the city.

Many business groups oppose the legislation, citing customer and employee safety. And, although the bill doesn’t allow individuals to sue companies that deny them employment, businesses are still concerned that they could be investigated by the city and potentially fined for turning down an applicant with a criminal history.

“Large hotels have hundreds of employees, many with access to guest rooms, personal belongings, vehicles, children and financial information,” said David Watkins, general manager at the Inn at the Market and president of the Seattle Hotel Association.

Watkins said his association supports giving people with prior convictions a second chance and said the hotels do hire people with criminal records for some positions. But he added that they don’t want the city second-guessing their employment decisions.

Josh McDonald, local government-affairs director for the Washington Restaurant Association, said his industry provides more entry-level jobs to ex-offenders than almost any other. At a recent public hearing on the bill, he pointed to Fare Start, the Seattle organization that gives homeless people and ex-convicts training and job-placement assistance in the food-service industry.

“The legislation doesn’t distinguish between types of felonies. Clearly, some are of more concern to employers than others,” he told members of Harrell’s Public Safety Committee recently.

Harrell has revised the legislation to address some business concerns. Most cities and states that have banned initial queries about criminal history, including Seattle, prohibit any questions about criminal history until a conditional job offer is made. The pending bill requires only that employers do an initial screening to eliminate unqualified applicants before asking about convictions.

City of Seattle and Washington state rules also require a “direct relationship” between the available job and an applicant’s criminal history in order to reject him or her for a government position. The pending legislation would require only a “legitimate business reason.”

Advocates say the current policies for private employers particularly hurt racial minorities, who are disproportionately arrested and incarcerated. Harrell notes that blacks make up less than 4 percent of Washington state’s population, but account for nearly 19 percent of its prison population.

Blacks are also more likely than whites in Washington to be unemployed. In 2010, black unemployment was almost 16 percent while it was almost 9 percent for whites, according to state figures.

Chris Stearns, chairman of the Seattle Human Rights Commission, argues that the proposed legislation enhances public safety because people with jobs are much less likely to commit new crimes.

Stearns said the commission first proposed the bill three years ago, when women at Sojourner Place, a transitional shelter for homeless women, said they were unable to find work because of their criminal records.

“These were women who were trying to regain custody of their children and rebuild their lives. They couldn’t find jobs and they couldn’t find housing. We think Seattle, and America, is about giving people second chances,” Stearns said.

Lynn Thompson: 206-464-8305 or lthompson@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @lthompsontimes

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