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Austin proposal would put criminal checks near end of hiring process

Jacqueline Conn has a bachelor’s degree in English and a master’s degree in public policy. She also has an assault conviction from 15 years ago, an incident she says grew out of a bad relationship.

“When I got out of prison, I realized that it would not matter if I had a bachelor’s degree or even [if] I had a master’s degree, that I was always going to be discriminated against. And that no one would care,” Conn said in a press conference Tuesday supporting the fair chance hiring ordinance coming before the Austin City Council on Thursday.

That measure “means that I get to be considered a human again, legally,” said Conn, 34, who works at the Center for Public Policy Priorities.

The proposal, which would apply to businesses in Austin with at least 15 employees, would prohibit employers from asking job applicants up front about any criminal history. Instead, companies would have to wait until they have made a conditional offer of employment before running a criminal background check on the applicant.

Advocates say the later an employer learns of a person’s criminal history, the more likely that applicant is to be evaluated on overall merit.

“I do believe that this is a landmark piece of civil rights legislation,” said Council Member Greg Casar, who led the charge for the ordinance. “We know that low-income communities and communities of color are those that are overly impacted by our criminal justice system and so this is restoring some basic rights back to that community.”

Some members of the business community have raised concerns about the ordinance, however, suggesting it would open them up to civil liability, increase administrative work, waste time and resources and deny them freedom in their hiring decisions.

The Austin Chamber of Commerce urged the City Council to delay action until May, using that time to gather public opinion and better understand how the ordinance would work in practice.

“It will affect at least 5,000 companies,” Drew Scheberle, the chamber’s senior vice president. “You have to sort through federal, state and local laws. We need that time.”

Scheberle indicated the chamber might support an ordinance to some effect, potentially one that would simply “ban the box,” or remove the criminal background question from job applications.

Mayor Steve Adler said there is nothing about the ordinance that forces employers to hire someone who fails a background check.

“It just takes that background check and puts it later into the process,” Adler said.

Businesses will not be required to keep additional records to show compliance. If an applicant is rejected based on an evaluation of their criminal history, though, the ordinance would require he or she be notified in writing.

The ordinance would not apply to sensitive positions like law enforcement officers, teachers and daycare workers, where existing laws dictate the rules on background checks.

Council Member Don Zimmerman said he planned to oppose the ordinance. He was joined at a second press conference by Pam Bratton of Meador Staffing Services, who cited an April 2015 study by Bersin by Deloitte that found employers spent on average $4,000 in recruiting and other costs per hire.

Bratton said businesses could lose money if they pick an applicant, only to discover later that the person does not qualify based on criminal history.

However, City Manager Marc Ott has assured the council that employers would not have to restart the entire hiring process. They could keep other candidates on file.

If the ordinance is approved Thursday, the city’s Equal Employment/Fair Housing Office would be charged with enforcing it. Penalties would not be imposed the first year, but later could range from the $100 in the proposal to the $500 suggested by Casar.

At least a dozen other cities or counties have passed similar measures, including San Francisco, Seattle and Washington, D.C.

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