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After emotional hearing, Austin council changes background check rules

Private companies in Austin will now be required to delay checking job applicants’ criminal histories until after they have extended a conditional offer of employment.

The Austin City Council voted 8-2 Thursday night to pass the “fair chance hiring” ordinance championed by Council Member Greg Casar, which prevents companies from asking applicants to check a box on a job application if they have a criminal history. Council Members Don Zimmerman and Ellen Troxclair voted no, while Council Member Sheri Gallo was absent from the meeting.

The ordinance applies to employers with at least 15 workers. Those companies may refuse to hire a person based on his or her criminal history only after considering the “nature and gravity” of the offense, the length of time that has passed since the offense and the scope of the job the person wants.

First-time offenders of the ordinance would need to attend a training session to be let off with a warning. The city otherwise may fine companies up to $500 for violating the ordinance.

Proponents of the ordinance called it a civil rights measure that would increase job opportunities for people with criminal histories, allowing them to provide for their families, break the chains of poverty and become productive members of society. An estimated 2,000 people are released from Texas prisons each year and come to Austin to live and work.

Opponents of the ordinance said it was burdensome for businesses and “unfair emotionally” for job applicants with convictions who will now have to wait until the last minute to find out whether their record disqualifies them.

Council Member Sabino “Pio” Renteria called on his council colleagues to show “compassion” after recounting the story of his older brother, who Renteria said got out of prison in his early 30s.

“He never made more than $10 an hour and never had any benefits because he was a felon,” Renteria said.

Roberta Schwartz, a vice president with Goodwill Central Texas, said the nonprofit objected to the ordinance — even though Goodwill hires employees with criminal records. It could be “devastating” for applicants to go through a long hiring process, get a conditional job offer and then be turned away because of a former offense, Schwartz said.

“That’s the kind of thing that makes you just throw your hands up and say, ‘I might as well just go back to jail,’” said Schwartz, who said she has a criminal record.

Council Member Don Zimmerman said there are other private employers in Austin who, like Goodwill, have chosen to move background checks later in the hiring process.

“They’re already doing it without mandates. They say … we object to the mandates,” Zimmerman said.

The Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce estimated the measure could affect at least 5,000 local businesses. Jose Carrillo, the chamber’s vice president of regional business advocacy, urged the council to delay action and to consider allowing a background check after an initial interview, which he said is the practice in Seattle and San Francisco.

Council Member Ellen Troxclair asked Casar if he would consider that change, but Casar declined.

Many of those who testified in favor of the ordinance recounted the trouble they had finding jobs because of their criminal backgrounds.

Isa Arizola, a single mother of two children, said she has a prior conviction. She only got her job at Goodwill, she said, because she had connections there.

“If you don’t support fair chance, you’re not only denying us employment … you’re also denying our children a fair chance at a better future,” Arizola said.

Council Member Ora Houston said the ordinance would help break the cycle of poverty and criminal behavior some of her constituents find themselves in.

“This issue does touch my heart because of the number of people in District 1 who have criminal histories, and they need a chance,” Houston said. “They don’t just need one chance, sometimes they need two or three chances to get a job and earn a living after serving time.”

Complaints alleging a violation of this ordinance can be filed with the city’s Equal Employment and Fair Housing Office.

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