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Legislation spotlights Austin’s fair chance rules

Tuesday, March 21, 2017 by Jo Clifton

Members of the Texas House Business & Industry Committee heard lengthy and conflicting testimony Monday on fair chance hiring regulations but did not take a vote on Austin Republican Rep. Paul Workman’s House Bill 577 – which would overturn Austin’s ordinance preventing employers from asking about criminal convictions on initial employment applications.

City Council Member Greg Casar, who championed the ordinance, waited many hours to testify against Workman’s legislation. In addition to Casar, numerous advocates for the previously incarcerated also testified against the Workman bill.

Executives from professional staffing organizations and their attorneys lined up to support Workman’s legislation, which is aimed squarely at Austin, the only city in the state with a fair chance ordinance. They obviously agree with Workman that the ordinance is bad for businesses and fear that it could spread to other Texas cities.

Casar told the committee, “The number of Americans behind bars has over quadrupled since the 1980s. I think that it’s wrong and I know that many of you think that’s wrong. I also know that there’s bipartisan support in this House of Representatives to address the expansiveness and the expense, moral and financial, of our rapidly growing prison and criminal justice systems.

“Here in Austin … there are about 2,000 people a year returning from prison to our municipality. That’s 2,000 people who under our current system have barriers to getting housing, barriers to getting a job and barriers to supporting themselves and their families,” he said.

Casar also explained that he and his colleagues had worked with more than 100 Austinites, including businesses, to create an ordinance that most could support. That support, he said, includes Austin’s Hispanic Chamber of Commerce as well as chambers of commerce representing the black community, the gay community and young people.

Workman asked Casar why the city had insisted on an ordinance that deprived business owners of their liberty, instead of simply doing a public relations campaign to convince employers that they should give former inmates a chance.

Casar replied that the city had done an extensive advertising campaign with employers, as well as enacting the ordinance. That ordinance has only been in effect for about a year, so the city has no statistics to show its impact, he said. However, he said, since the city decided to remove the criminal history box from its employment application, they have found no problems with workers who have criminal histories.

He noted that much of the ordinance tracks federal employment regulations.

There were any number of heart-wrenching stories from people who had gone to prison and gotten out only to find that society did not really think that they had paid for their crimes and that they were still being punished by being refused employment.

On the other hand, the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce never quite became comfortable with the ordinance and sent a representative to support Workman’s legislation.

Jeff Collins with the National Association of Professional Background Screeners said he was in favor of Workman’s bill. He is the owner of Integrated Screening Partners. He and Mike Coffey, an employer investigator from Fort Worth, told the committee they were concerned about the possibility of having to deal with what Coffey called “a nationwide patchwork of regulations concerning criminal history.”

In addition to the Workman bill, the committee left pending HB 548 by state Rep. Joe Deshotel (D-Beaumont), which would prevent employers from asking about criminal convictions prior to a job interview or making a conditional offer of employment. The bill would also prohibit employers from considering convictions more than seven years old.

It was after 6 p.m. when Deshotel was finally able to lay out his legislation but many of those who would have testified in favor of it had gone home after speaking against Workman’s bill.

After hearing objections to the seven-year cutoff period, Deshotel said he could change that part of the bill or perhaps eliminate it.

Photo by Wing-Chi Poon made available through a Creative Commons license.

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