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Bay Area cities expand employment protections for ex-convicts

Flickr user: Waponi
A job application asks about past convictions.

When you fill out a job application, you expect to answer some basic questions. Things like your employment and education history, and relevant skills to the job. And in many cases, you also have to check a box to declare whether you’ve ever been convicted of a crime.

In the city of Richmond, though, that last one is no longer fair game. It hasn’t been for a couple of years, since the city passed an ordinance called “ban the box,” forbidding government employees from asking job applicants about their criminal histories.

More than 50 cities and counties, as well as 10 states, have enacted some form of “ban the box” laws. That includes California.

Richmond is expanding its law, making it one of the most far-reaching in the country. As of December 2013, private employers with city contracts can no longer ask about criminal pasts. There are exceptions for “sensitive” positions though.  

The job search for the formerly incarcerated

Richmond native Michelle Walker hopes the new provision can help her find a full-time job. She’s cycled through jails and prisons for a third of her life, but now, the 31-year-old says she’s ready to change things for good. She just completed an intensive two-week course on financial education and career management, organized by a local group that supports low-income people.

At the graduation ceremony, Walker looks sharp in a white button-up shirt tucked into black slacks. This is one of the biggest accomplishments of her life. She thanks her family and peers for their support throughout her journey.

“I’d just like to say that it’s not about what we’ve done in our past, but what we do now to better our future,” she says. “Never give up and always strive for the best. And remember, pay yourself first, and we’re all winners.”

Walker hasn’t had an easy life. She became a foster kid at age six and says she started making bad choices as she got older. She was 16 when she was first incarcerated for assault.

“I feel that it was a protection and defense of myself,” says Walker. “Two minors, we both got in trouble. I was more rebellious so I got confined for it.”

There have been other incidents. After her last stint in prison in 2010, Walker says she decided to make a better life for her 4-year-old son. She held down a steady housekeeping job in Arizona for two years but recently moved back to Richmond.

"I did warehouse assembly so I applied to warehouse,” she says. “Construction. I’m trying to see if they need any carpentry work. I’ve been applying for a lot. Anything from customer service to landscaping, janitorial, housekeeping.”

But finding work with a rap sheet isn’t easy. In 2011, a local advocacy group for formerly incarcerated people found that more than two-thirds of Richmond’s residents with a criminal history are unemployed.

Jesse Stout is the policy director for Legal Services for Prisoners with Children. His organization has led the campaign to “ban the box” nationwide – the idea is to prohibit questions about criminal convictions from job applications.

“People who’ve been to prison face nearly insurmountable obstacles in terms of returning to society,” says Stout. “Earning a living. And supporting their families.”

Ban the box policies are growing in cities including Chicago and New York, as well as San Francisco, Oakland, and Berkeley. But Stout says Richmond stands out. The reason is that Richmond doesn’t just prohibit city employers from asking about criminal histories. Now, private businesses that contract with the city can’t ask either. Ever.

There are exceptions, though. Exempted jobs include police officers, teachers and other “sensitive” positions where people have to handle large amounts of cash or private information.

Richmond councilwoman Jovanka Beckles sponsored the ordinance last year. During a council meeting to vote on the measure, she spoke about a man she’d known for 20 years who applied for a job helping children with mental health issues. Beckles didn’t even know he had once been incarcerated.

“Most honest man I know,” says Beckles. “Came in there wanting to do an internship, was denied because he committed a crime that had nothing to do with children. But the fact he had a record disqualified him. That’s not fair. He should have been given an opportunity to sit down. He should have been given an opportunity to show himself.”

Michelle Walker got that opportunity. After her training course, she found work as a landscaper.

But many private businesses in Richmond are not pleased with the new law.

“We have some business people saying no, I would totally not go for it,” says Michael Davenport, the board chair for Richmond’s Chamber of Commerce. “No way, I want to know who I’m hiring.”

He says about three-quarter of the chamber’s membership did not support the measure, but the group didn’t take a formal position.

Davenport, who runs a private security and limo business, points out that most private employers aren’t affected at all.

“I try to explain that you still can do the check,” he says. “If someone fills an application, and you interview them, you can say I’d like to hire this person. You have all their info so you can do a background check before you call them in.”

Legally, it’s not okay to have a blanket policy against hiring people with a criminal background. But it’s a hard law to enforce, especially for small businesses. And that’s why ban the box advocates in Richmond and across the bay in San Francisco insist on more protective laws. In fact, San Francisco passed the nation’s first ban the box law a decade ago.

How San Francisco’s model works

In San Francisco, “Sheryl Smith” takes a lunch break by the main branch library. We’re using a pseudonym because she feels like she’s stigmatized when people find out about her past. Smith tried unsuccessfully to find work for a couple of years due to a theft-related felony conviction in 2008.

“When they found out about my conviction,” she says, “some blatantly told me before they even ran my criminal history that because I had a felony conviction that I wasn’t going to be able to work with them. Some gave me the justice of at least running my conviction and then told me they would have to deny me employment. And those were the times I was lucky enough to be interviewed.”

She eventually connected with Goodwill Industries and proved herself to be an outstanding worker. She was specially selected by the company to interview for a job with the city and county of San Francisco.

“It only guaranteed the first interview. You had to earn the rest,” says Smith.

She believes when she can bring up her criminal record in person, she still has a chance to get the job.

“I felt like they more understood that it’s not that black and white,” she says. “I went through the interview process and they got to know me for my work ethic. I got to display the skills I would bring to the table before it ever came up.”

San Francisco board supervisor Jane Kim wants to give even more protections to ex-offenders.

“What this is really about is giving people a fair opportunity for work and for housing who want to work and want access to housing,” says Kim. She and fellow supervisor Malia Cohen co-authored what they call the Fair Chance Ordinance, a policy that would make city contractors, many private companies, and public housing providers wait to ask about criminal backgrounds until after an interview.

“We’re not asking employers and housing providers to give them a preference, let’s be clear,” says Cohen. “But we are asking them to not automatically to deny someone simply on their criminal history.”

The full board unanimously passed the resolution in early February. The board will vote one more time before it goes to the mayor. If signed, the law will go into effect next year.

As San Francisco and Richmond continue to expand protections for this constituency, California will begin to enforce its own version of ban the box in July 2014, which will requires state and local agencies to postpone background checks until later in the hiring process.