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Alexander Roberts: Westchester may prohibit employers from asking about convictions on job applications

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Westchester County is poised to enact a law that would prohibit private employers from asking about an individual’s criminal record on the initial job application.

It’s called “Ban the Box” or “Fair Chance” legislation and part of a movement to improve the hiring of ex-offenders. It has spread across the country, with 31 states and 150 municipalities adopting such legislation.

A public hearing is slated for Nov. 19, after which lawmakers are expected to vote on the proposal.

New York state has a law that requires employers to consider an individual applicant’s criminal record before rejecting such a person, but “Ban the Box” laws go further in preventing the employer from even asking about a criminal past on the initial application.

Connecticut already has such a law, but gives the employer the right to inquire during the interview.

New York City’s law states an employer may not ask about a criminal record until after a conditional offer of employment is made.

As a nation with 70 million adults with criminal records, including people who have been arrested or convicted, we need to improve the odds of gainful employment for this segment of the population.

Too often, a checked box for “Have you ever been arrested or convicted of a crime,” sends a job application into the circular file.

I was asked to testify before Westchester lawmakers in my capacity as executive director of Community Housing Innovations, a nonprofit agency that no longer asks about a job applicant’s criminal record on the initial job application. Employers legally barred from hiring applicants with convictions for specific crimes (such as police officers) would be exempt.

Discrimination against ex-offenders contributes to recidivism and goes against the fundamental Judeo-Christian concept of providing an avenue of return to society after prison. We need to improve the odds of gainful employment.

I brought one of our employees to the Oct. 9 hearing, a life-skills coordinator with a past record for illegal drug use. He spoke movingly of receiving no callbacks for any jobs except fast food service, despite having worked in office administration and being clean for several years. Banning the box on our job application as a nonprofit, mission-driven organization was a no-brainer. A representative of the Greyston Bakery, run by a nonprofit which makes the cookies for Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream in Yonkers, talked about having an “open hiring” process where they never ask about conviction records. But it turns out that for-profit firms apply a different calculus.

In support of this legislation, the data show that once an employer has had the chance to examine the qualifications of the applicant and meet with him or her, the employer is more willing to hire the applicant.

New research, however, raises questions about unintended consequences.

Data before and after “Ban the Box” comparing callback rates for people with African-American and Hispanic-sounding names show that discrimination gets worse.

A study released in July 2016 by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that Ban the Box policies reduce the probability of employment for young, low-skilled black men by 3.4 percentage points and by 2.3 percentage points for young, low-skilled Hispanic men.

In August of last year, Amanda Agan (Princeton University) and Sonja Starr (University of Michigan Law School) found that although banning the box made it more likely that individuals with criminal records would receive callbacks from prospective employers, it dramatically increased the gap in callbacks between black and white applicants.

“… we find that the race gap in callbacks grows dramatically at the BTB-affected companies after the policy goes into effect. Before BTB, white applicants to BTB-affected employers received about 7 percent more callbacks than similar black applicants, but BTB increases this gap to 45 percent.”

Researchers blame statistical discrimination on the basis of race for the unintended consequences of Ban the Box. Without the information on convictions, employers throw out resumes with African-American or Hispanic-sounding names because they know that these groups are more likely to have criminal records. It’s a form of racial profiling.

In response to concerns voiced by The Business Council of Westchester, the proposed county law does not go as far as the New York City law, as it allows employers to ask about criminal convictions at the interview stage and allows background checks.

Once the criminal record is disclosed, the proposed law would require an employer to perform an evaluation pursuant to New York Corrections Law Article 23-A. If employment is denied, the employer must provide a written statement on request to the applicant setting forth the reasons for denial of employment based on the same statute.

However, while the Business Council will not oppose the law, Executive Vice President John Ravitz said the organization is not supporting it either.

“We don’t want to continue to say the county legislature is going to dictate how you operate your business on a daily basis. This doesn’t set the right tone if we want to attract new businesses to Westchester,” Ravitz said.

Alexander Roberts is the executive director of Community Housing Innovations Inc. He can be reached at 914-683-1010.



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