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Fair chance hiring moves forward

Tuesday, November 10, 2015 by Jo Clifton

City Council’s Economic Opportunity Committee voted Monday to direct staff to move forward with writing what is known as a fair chance hiring ordinance. It would include a one-year period to educate employers before they would face penalties for noncompliance.

The vote was 3-1, with Council Member Ellen Troxclair, who chairs the committee, voting no. Joining sponsor Council Member Greg Casar in approving the plan were Council Members Ora Houston and Leslie Pool.

Last month, the same committee voted unanimously to approve a small portion of the ordinance called “ban the box,” which would prohibit most employers from asking applicants initially if they have had a criminal conviction. They would still be able to ask that question later in the hiring process.

This stipulation does not apply to employers whose employees work with vulnerable populations, such as children or the elderly, nor would it apply to employers who are directed by either the state or federal government to do criminal background checks.

If the concept approved by the committee on Monday wins full Council approval, probably sometime in early 2016, Austin employers with 10 or more employees would be able to inquire about an applicant’s criminal history once a written or verbal conditional offer of employment is made. Smaller companies would not be subject to the ordinance.

Hoover Alexander, owner of the east side eatery that bears his name, told the committee that he favored the ordinance but would like to see the city use more carrots than sticks to obtain compliance.

Alexander said that previously incarcerated employees he had hired have done a good job and are extremely grateful for the employment. One example of that, he said, is his right-hand man. “For me it’s about common sense,” he said. “It’s about not adding to recidivism, not having people go back to prison if we don’t give them a chance.”

Alexander said he was happy to be the “poster boy” for fair chance hiring.

Pamela Bratton, who runs a human resources company, said she and other industry members were not opposed to the “ban the box” part of the ordinance. However, they did have concerns about some record-keeping requirements that seem to duplicate the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act. The proposed ordinance would require employers to notify an applicant of any adverse action and indicate if they were not hired because of their criminal background.

Joya Hayes, acting human resources director for the city, told the committee that the city would seek an outside company to guide educational efforts on fair chance hiring, just as it did when the city decided to ban plastic bags. Hayes did not know how much that would cost, but she said the city would issue a request for proposals once the ordinance passed.

The department estimated the cost of the ordinance without the projected funding for education and marketing. Under one scenario, the cost would be about $225,000, and under another scenario it would be about $359,000. Those costs include setting up an information technology case management system, hiring three full-time employees and employee setup costs, according to documentation presented to the Council committee.

After a one-year education program, the city would set up a system for taking complaints and evaluating them. The staff recommended that the Equal Employment and Fair Housing Office conduct the investigation and make a preliminary determination about whether there has been a violation. At that point, the employer would receive a warning and have three months to correct the violation. After that, a second infraction would mean a $250 fine per violation. Any subsequent infractions would result in a $500 fine. This would be a civil penalty.

The employer would have the option of appealing. A hearings officer would conduct a hearing and issue a proposal for decision to the Human Rights Commission, which would issue a final decision.

Although there is certainly a desire on the part of the proponents to make sure that city contractors are abiding by the fair chance policy, according to staff documentation it cannot be written into city contracts.

The Human Resources Department and the Law Department will be working together over the next few months to put together the ordinance. Hayes said they would likely bring it back to the full Council in January or later.

Photo by Katya Boltonova made available through a Creative Commons License.

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