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Council poised to pass fair-chance hiring ordinance

Wednesday, March 23, 2016 by Eva Ruth Moravec

Despite the fact that Jacqueline Conn has a master’s degree, it took her 10 months to find a job in Austin, a delay she attributes to a 15-year-old felony conviction.

On Tuesday, Conn, 34, stood behind Council Member Greg Casar and other elected officials as they celebrated Casar’s fair-chance hiring proposal, which Council will likely pass after a public hearing Thursday. Only one Council member, Don Zimmerman, appears to oppose the measure.

“We are ready to be the first fair-chance city in the South,” Casar said at a news conference before Council’s Tuesday work session. “This is a landmark civil rights policy.”

The ordinance would prohibit Austin companies with more than 15 employees from asking about a job candidate’s criminal background until the company has made the candidate a conditional job offer. After a year-long grace period following the ordinance’s passage, companies could face complaints if they violate it. For the second year of the ordinance, complaints would result only in warnings; after that, violators would face a $500 penalty.

Supporters say that in order for the criminal justice system to be successful and address recidivism, ex-offenders need to be able to find jobs. “These are people who have paid their debt to society,” Travis County Commissioner Brigid Shea said at the news conference, “and we have a duty to support them.”

Conn – who was 19 when she drove into an ex-boyfriend with her vehicle and was charged with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon – also spoke at the news conference. Upon being released from prison, she said she knew she “was always going to be discriminated against” because of her record. She earned her master’s degree in public policy but has had difficulties getting past a written application or phone interview after potential employers asked if she had been convicted of a felony.

Ultimately, said Conn, “I had to really significantly undersell my skill set.” She applied for an entry-level position with a local policy institute, the Center for Public Policy Priorities. There, she wasn’t asked about her record until her conditional offer. She said she disclosed her felony even though it was so old it didn’t come up on CPPP’s background check.

Casar’s ordinance “makes me feel human again,” said Conn.

In a news conference after Casar’s comments Tuesday, Zimmerman told the media that while “everybody acknowledges this is a good idea,” he plans to vote against the ordinance.

“We have too many laws on the books,” Zimmerman said, adding that employers don’t need to be forced to make fair hiring choices.

He was joined by Drew Scheberle of the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce, which opposes the ordinance and sent out an email blast urging members to voice their concerns before Council Thursday.

“Austin City Council wants to tell you how to hire your workers,” the email states. During the conference, Scheberle said the chamber did attend meetings about the issue in the beginning and has “no directional opposition” to Casar’s ordinance. But, he said, membership got the ordinance only last month, and “the board had a ton of questions,” Scheberle said.

The chamber asked Casar to postpone the vote until May, Scheberle said, but Casar declined. Asked about the timeline Tuesday, Casar said it has been “a thoroughly vetted process.” Mayor Steve Adler added that Council hasn’t had another issue debated publicly for this long.

Casar also said on Tuesday that after hearing the chamber’s concerns, he had addressed most of them in amendments. He said the remaining opposition is “to the core of the ordinance” – delaying background checks – which he is not willing to change.

Zimmerman said the ordinance has “many unintended consequences” that will hurt small businesses and nonprofits. Zimmerman was joined by Pam Bratton of Meador Staffing Services. She said delaying a background check only gives applicants false hopes and causes an “additional burden.”

She added that it would also cost companies more to go through the hiring process only to learn toward the end that their top candidate had a criminal background. She cited a 2015 study finding that it costs companies about $4,000 to hire talent.

City Manager Marc Ott rebuked that statement during Council’s work session Tuesday. He explained how the city has implemented its own fair-chance hiring procedures and no longer asks applicants if they have a criminal background until there is an offer.

“You don’t have to eliminate anyone to make a conditional offer,” Ott said, adding that if one fails a background check, there are typically other top candidate choices.

Council will take public comments on the item sometime after 4:30 p.m. Thursday before voting on the ordinance. But because the item was vetted in committee, comments will be limited to 30 minutes for those opposed and 30 minutes for those in favor.

Mayor Steve Adler, flanked by other elected officers and local Democratic leaders, posed for a picture at a news conference announcing the proposed fair chance hiring ordinance.

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