Seattle City Councilman Bruce Harrell is proposing a new law that would prohibit employers from “discriminating” against convicted felons. The law would prevent any employer, whether they are a hospital, school or merchant, from looking at an applicant’s criminal record until late in the hiring process and, with few exceptions, would not allow them to reject applicants solely on their criminal history.
Harrell believes convicted felons are less likely to reoffend if they have more employment opportunities. He told a television reporter, “Recidivism is so high because they can’t get jobs.”
In one sense, Harrell is correct. If a person with a criminal record is committed to changing his or her life, having a job helps pay the rent and put food on the table.
But there are other problems to consider.
First, we have to assume Councilman Harrell’s proposal does not cover people locked away for violent crimes or as sexual predators.
Second, the information about someone’s criminal background should be available from the beginning. On a practical level, employers invest considerable time and money in the interview process, including costly drug testing. Addressing criminal history early in the process makes more sense.
In addition, employers and the people working for them must have a trusting relationship. Understanding someone’s background and skills up front is paramount.
When Gov. Gary Locke took office, First Lady Mona Locke asked AWB and others to join her in developing a program called Computers for Kids. The program collected and shipped used computers to the Airway Heights Correctional Facility near Spokane where they were refurbished by inmates and distributed to needy schools.
Airway Heights was a medium-security prison. Being inside the facility felt safe, and talking with the inmates doing the work was instructive. These folks were put in jail for non-violent crimes and, by and large, were being trained to get a job. As an employer, it is good to know up front about this person’s background, rehabilitation and training for a job.
Today, employers struggle with uncertainty, taxes, a morass of federal, state and local regulations and the difficulty of staying afloat in our anemic economy. If Councilman Harrell’s proposal establishes convicted felons as a “protected class,” it will create a new layer of uncertainty and risk.
The law would exempt jobs working with seniors or other vulnerable populations, along with those where public-safety issues are a factor. But what if a convicted burglar wants a job in your locksmith shop? What if a convicted sex offender wants a job installing home carpet? What if a person convicted of vehicular manslaughter wants a job driving one of your trucks?
What happens if a felon hired pursuant to this law commits a crime, either on the job or with information gained through their employment? Will the city of Seattle grant employers immunity from liability?
As Angela Bosworth writes on employeescreen.com, “At what stage in the process are [employers] allowed to ask about a candidate’s record? Do they follow state or local laws, or do they follow the federal guidelines? How do they follow up with candidates, and how far must they go to keep a job open if criminal history is disclosed? And if they get sued for negligent hiring because they followed the rules and they get burned, who is going to pay for their defense?”
Councilman Harrell must definitively answer all of those questions before his proposal moves forward.