This piece originally ran on The Philadelphia Tribune
Ban the Box legislation, which prohibits employers from asking prospective employees if they have a criminal record until a second interview, will go into effect Friday, Jan. 13.
“This law is about changing employer conduct, creating a level playing field for people who happen to have criminal records,” said Rue Landau, executive director of Philadelphia’s Human Rights Commission, which is charge of enforcing the new law.
Under the law, which was approved by City Council in March and signed into law by Mayor Michael Nutter in April, employers with 10 or more employees are forbidden, on employment applications, to ask whether a candidate for a job has a criminal history — nor can the question be asked in a first interview. After that, employers are free to ask.
“The goal is to try and make sure — at the minimum — that anybody with a criminal background can at least get in the door to fill out an application — maybe even get to a first interview before anybody knows about their criminal background,” Landau said. “Because, as we all know, getting a job and holding a job is one of the most important mechanisms to make sure that they don’t go through the revolving door of recidivism.”
There are exemptions to the rule. “It excludes what is defined in the law as criminal justice agencies,” she said. Police departments, prisons.”
Other employers or organizations that are required by law to run background checks will be expected to comply.
“In our opinion in order to comply with this law the question is not about what you have to do, but when you have to do it,” she said. “We would still maintain that you cannot ask certain questions on your application or certain questions in your first interview, even if you are mandated by state or federal law to ask them.”
Employers who violate the law will be subject to fines up to $2,000.
The law relies on applicants to monitor employers. City officials have been meeting with prison officials, caseworkers and others to make sure that ex-offenders are aware of the law and know the procedures.
If an applicant finds the question on an application they can file a complaint with the city’s Human Relations Commission.
Commission officials would then issue a warning giving the employer 30 days to respond to the charge. A hearing on the matter can then be scheduled.
Five states and 27 cities across the nation have similar legislation.
Approximately 8,500 Philadelphians are incarcerated on any given day. There are approximately 300,000 ex-offenders in Philadelphia, about one-fifth of the city’s population. Nearly 3,200 Philadelphians are released from prison every year.
Their inability to find work has a huge impact on the city. When their families are included their influence stretches to as much as half of the city’s population. The legislation — called the ‘ban the box’ law — was introduced by former Councilwoman Donna Reed Miller and passed unanimously by Council. The law is intended to help ex-offenders make the transition from prison back into society, she said at the time, noting that a sentence served is a debt paid.