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Committee OKs ‘ban the box’ ordinance

Tuesday, October 13, 2015 by Jo Clifton

The City Council Economic Opportunity Committee voted 3–0 Monday to move forward with an ordinance that would prevent private employers from asking job applicants whether they have a criminal history on their initial employment applications. Similar laws – called “ban the box” laws in reference to the criminal-history check box on job applications – have been passed in other states and municipalities.

Committee members took no action on several other complex recommendations from the city’s Human Resources Department that fall under the rubric of “fair chance hiring.”

Council Member Greg Casar argued in favor of directing city staff to draft an ordinance that would include penalties for failing to abide by the fair chance ordinance. However, committee Chair Ellen Troxclair was not comfortable moving forward, and Council Member Ora Houston supported Troxclair’s need to have more information. Council Member Leslie Pool was not at the meeting.

Although she strongly supported banning the box, Houston also insisted that the city first start with a public education campaign about the need to remove the box from employment applications before any sort of enforcement actions might begin.

Joya Hayes, acting director of the Human Resources Department, noted that the city of Austin amended its employment applications in 2008 to no longer require disclosure of past criminal history during the initial job application process. She presented a list of options from a stakeholder group that she said included both small employers and people who had been unable to find jobs because of a criminal history.

Hayes said fair chance hiring requires an employer to take into account the time that has passed since a conviction, whether it is related to the job the employee is applying for and evidence of rehabilitation.

The stakeholder group recommended that both public- and private-sector employers with 10 or more employees be included and that the employer not ask about criminal history until after top candidates have been identified.

However, Casar said he wanted to require all private employers – except those required by law to do background checks – to remove the criminal history box from their applications. He agreed not to move forward with a recommendation mandating that employers keep paperwork on hiring for any specific length of time, although he clearly would like to see that as part of the ordinance.

The stakeholder group also recommended that the city do business only with businesses that have adopted fair chance hiring policies.

Based on the recommendations from the group, the Human Resources Department proposed to extend the ban-the-box idea to all employers with 10 or more employees and to all city contractors.

Don Dyer, owner of Professional Janitorial Services, urged the committee to move slowly on the ordinance. Dyer said that in his business, he often turns over the keys to someone’s office to an employee, making the business different from Home Depot, for example. Dyer also said he was troubled because employers were outnumbered badly on the committee making the recommendations.

The committee also heard from about a dozen citizens who said they were in favor of the ordinance, several of them telling personal stories about difficulties they faced in finding employment.

Council members also received letters from the Greater Austin Black Chamber of Commerce, the Austin Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce, the Austin Area Urban League, Front Steps, the executive director of the Austin Young Chamber of Commerce and BookPeople CEO Steve Bercu stating their support for a fair chance ordinance.

Hayes said the department would be working closely with the Law Department to better understand what authority the city has. There are still many questions related to the fair hiring process, and the committee is likely to take them up again next month.

Photo by Kathryn Decker made available through a Creative Commons license.

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