by Mark Hansen, NWJP Staff Attorney
Ban the Box is an ongoing campaign in cities and states around the country pushing for the removal of the “Have you ever been convicted of a crime?” question from employment applications. In 2007, Oregon’s Multnomah County removed the question from its job applications. Portland went one step further last July, removing criminal background check language from applications for certain jobs with the city, and joining the rapidly increasing number of cities and counties that have already adopted Ban the Box policies.
What does NWJP have to do with the Ban the Box movement and why would we support it? We’re glad you asked.
Our clients—immigrant, low-wage, contingent workers—are systematically and routinely exploited, discriminated against, and robbed of their wages. This happens because of outdated and unjust institutional structures and an economic system that views these workers as “disposable.” But it also happens because of the circumstances in which these workers find themselves: they are limited in their ability to find work, ignorant of their rights, and so desperate to earn a livelihood, they often work for months without asserting their rights, hoping their bosses will come through at some point.
Individuals returning to their communities after serving a prison sentence face similar difficulties. Trying to find employment with a criminal record is nearly impossible, and “checking the box” is a significant barrier to employment and to workers’ successful re-entry into society.
Like our other clients, those with a criminal record are eager to find work, so they will take the jobs everyone else would run from—the same unsafe, low paying, temporary, and risky jobs we see our immigrant and low-wage clients take. Also like our clients, once in those jobs, people with records are likely to be exploited and taken advantage of.
You see where we are going: people with records are becoming yet another “underclass,” a group of people who is unjustly targeted for abuse. Because these individuals don’t have many choices when it comes to employment, they are less likely to report unlawful employment practices including wage theft, discrimination, and unhealthy or unsafe working conditions. Many may also be unaware of the workplace protections the law provides. Instead, feeling lucky to have found a job at all, they fear losing it and remain silent.
Advocates know, however, that there are valid concerns regarding the employment of individuals with records. In Oregon, laws already in place prevent individuals with certain criminal histories from working with vulnerable populations or in finance, or have access to sensitive, personal information. Ban the Box is not seeking to repeal these laws, but wants to ensure that individuals—who previously had no chance of even receiving a call-back—get an opportunity to make it to the interview stage and to explain why they are now good candidates for employment.
The stigma associated with having broken the law is difficult to ignore, especially at the initial stages of job applicant screening, and it affects minority and low-income applicants disproportionately. This is why proponents of banning the box believe that removing the conviction question will ensure a larger and more diverse candidate pool and will connect employers with a wider selection of qualified employees.
Many of the Ban the Box campaigns, including the one in Oregon, agree that employers should have the right to require a background check prior to employment. However, they say, a background check should be the last step, not the first. This encourages employers to select the most qualified candidates for the job, allows the prospective candidate to be judged on the basis of qualifications alone, and gives both parties the opportunity to openly talk about questions that may come up. Advocates want employers to set the Box aside, and make employment decisions based on real impressions, not stigma or misperceptions.
For a person with a record, re-entry into the community is already difficult. Keeping people with records unemployed or employed in poverty-wage jobs is more likely to lead to recidivism. (According to Fair Chance for All, the group that leads the Ban the Box campaign in Portland, people with records who became employed were twice as likely to avoid future legal trouble as those who were unemployed.) Banning the box allows individuals who have made mistakes to move past the debt they’ve already paid society, and gives them a genuine opportunity to start anew. And that’s good for all of us.
For more information about the Ban the Box campaign, please visit Fair Chance for All’s website (fairchanceforall.com), or the National Employment Law Project’s website (www.nelp.org).