Leah Binkovitz | @leahbink | July 14, 2016
Dallas is looking to follow Austin’s recent example, as the city council there considers so-called “ban the box” legislation that could prohibit private employers from asking about an applicant’s criminal background on job applications.
If Dallas enacts the policy, it would be the second city in Texas — and all of the South — to do so.
Earlier this year, Austin became the first city in Texas to “ban the box” for private employers. As a result, private businesses hiring new employees must delay questions about criminal convictions and background checks until a provisional job offer is on the table. The hope is that the reform will improve the ability of those with criminal pasts to land employment.
More than 100 cities and counties have enacted similar policies — largely for public employees but increasingly for private employers too — according to the National Employment Law Project, an advocacy group focused on workers issues. Nearly half the states have done the same.
But Texas — and most cities within it — are not among them. Advocates hope that may change.
In 2012, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission approved new hiring guidelines that encouraged individual assessments of candidates before asking about past convictions, in part, to address the disparate impact that background checks had on black and Hispanic job applicants.
The those guidelines, however, weren’t requirements. And they didn’t overrule existing federal regulations that prevent people with certain convictions from working in specific occupations. They still allowed employers to make decisions based on criminal history, taking into account factors like gravity of the crime, the nature of the job and the length of time since the offense was committed.
Still, then-Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott sued the commission, arguing that the state had a right to enforce an absolute ban on hiring convicted felons for certain jobs and that the guidance presented a hardship. “Once again, the Obama Administration is overreaching its legal authority by trying to impose hiring rules on states that violate state sovereignty and – in this instance – endanger public safety,” Abbott said in a 2013 statement.
Because the guidance wasn’t legally binding in the first place, the case was eventually thrown out, and — buoyed by the commission’s new guidelines — both “ban the box” and “fair change hiring” efforts continued to expand.
Ban the box refers to the question that appears on many job applications about the applicant’s previous criminal history. Proponents would like the box removed from the application as a way of screening people out and argue that criminal background inquiries and checks can be done later in the process. Fair chance hiring is a broader movement aimed at not only delaying any criminal background inquiries until later in the interview process but also adopting the EEOC guidelines having to do with assessing an individual’s criminal history and its relevance to the job.
Championed by council member Tiffinni Young, the initiative in Dallas is still taking shape. After a briefing in June, the city council seemed receptive to the idea, according to the Dallas Morning News.
“We talk about having access to economic opportunity — this is something that takes us a step higher and helps folks get on a level playing field,” Young told the newspaper.
Dallas will look to Austin’s ordinance as a model. But some Dallas city leaders are pushing a voluntary program instead.
Dallas County already approved revised hiring guidelines for its employees in 2015, when the county commissioners agreed to follow the federal guidance, delaying questions about criminal history, assessing the gravity and relevance of past offenses and allowing applicants to review and challenge background check information. But the county policies only applied to public workers, not the private sector, as the city hopes to achieve.
Austin leads the South
If the policies are enacted, Dallas would join only a handful of cities that prohibit private employers from asking about a candidate’s criminal background on applications. Only 13 cities have that policy, including Seattle, Wash.; New York City; Washington, D.C. and San Francisco, according to the National Employment Law Project.
Austin became the first city in the South and the first Sun Belt city to extend its measure to private employers with 15 or more employees, following gan 8-2 city council vote in favor of the measure in March.
“Although I am formerly incarcerated, my offense was over eight years ago, and now my children, which are 12 and 6, are still suffering from the consequences of my actions,” Isa Arizola-Uballe, an outreach and recruiting coordinator for Goodwill told the Austin city council, according to a transcript. “If you don’t support fair chance, you’re not only denying us employment and a better equal opportunity of jobs, but you’re also denying our children a fair chance at a better future.”
Social workers shared similar concerns about how a criminal past can affect one’s ability to secure work. “I know personally and see in my work every day that parental incarceration has lifelong impacts that (are) associated with decreased physical and mental health over the course of a young person’s lifetime,” said Kandace Vallejo, director of Youth Rise Texas, a mentoring and community organizing group, in testimony to the council, according to a transcript. “(There are) problems in school, decreased earnings long-term, and this doesn’t even begin to address the trauma and lack of having your caregiver and your ally in your home.”
Still, some business owners resisted the Austin move, arguing that delayed background checks would draw out the time and expense of the hiring process — but wouldn’t ultimately change its outcome.
Houston looks to job fairs
Similar legislation similar does not look to be on the table in Houston.
That’s not to say the city doesn’t address the issue. Then-mayor Annise Parker banned the box for city employees via an executive order during her tenure. And the city’s health department offers a 12-week course for individuals who have been incarcerated, focusing on on computer training and resume development as well as life skills and peer support while offering case management.
Meanwhile, Houston city council member Dwight Boykins recently started a regular Second Chance Job Fair as part of an effort to find employment opportunities for people who have been previously incarcerated. That work overlaps with Mayor Sylvester Turner’s own Turnaround Houston initiative.
But, said Janice Evans, Turner’s communications director, expanding existing “ban the box” policies to private employers “is not on the radar at this time.”
“The mayor is focused on solving the city’s pension problems and other issues,” she said. “I cannot say if it is something that he will be considering down the road.”
Those background checks, however, keep many people from securing work, said Charles Rotramel, executive director of Houston reVision, which works with people who have been through the juvenile justice system. Though policies like Austin’s that delay questions about criminal history don’t guarantee employment, they give some people a better chance, he said.
“It’s a beginning — and a healthy beginning,” Rotramel said. “It communicates that we believe that your past does not dictate your future. And sure — there will be jobs that have to ultimately ask about that and ultimately rule folks out — but it’s a good first step.”