Austin City Hall is staffing up to get enforcement of its “fair chance” hiring provisions off the ground — even amid uncertainty that the requirements will survive the legislative session.
The city’s ordinance, passed last year, bars any business with operations in Austin from asking about an applicant’s criminal history until the end of the hiring process. State Rep. Paul Workman, R-Austin, immediately vowed to fight the bill, calling it “social engineering run amok.” In December, he filed a bill that would overturn any local hiring ordinances like Austin’s.
As that bill winds its way through the legislative process (it was referred to the House Business and Industry Committee on Feb. 20), Austin city staffers are figuring out a process for enforcing the hiring rules.
Proponents of such hiring rules say that forcing employers to consider criminal histories case-by-case instead of blindly nixing everyone with records gives ex-offenders a better chance of getting jobs and successfully contributing to society. Opponents contend such ordinances impede businesses’ hiring rights and are unfair to ex-offenders who might get their hopes up unnecessarily.
In a guest column published in the American-Statesman after the ordinance was passed, Workman called the matter outside the purview of local government.
“I find it ironic that the same City Council that recently mandated fingerprint-based background checks for Uber and Lyft drivers now wants to force other businesses to hire individuals with criminal backgrounds,” he wrote.
He said last week that the bill was one of his top priorities this session. He supports governments and businesses changing their own hiring practices, but not as a mandate.
Council Member Sabino “Pio” Renteria said he’s concerned about Workman’s bill. The fair chance hiring ordinance is important to him because of his brother, who went to prison at a young age for drug-related crimes and was released in his 30s.
“He made minimum wage all his life, and no one would hire him,” Renteria said. “There’s lots of hardworking Austinites that are qualified to do work, but (employers) pre-emptively judge them.”
Renteria accused legislators of claiming to favor local control while working against it. Workman said the state should overturn local control “when local control interferes with individual liberties.”
Since May, the city has received four complaints involving fair chance hiring, including two filed by the same person and one filed anonymously. One alleges that a local moving company uses an application form that asks the question, “Do you have a criminal background?” The other complaints are more complicated, involving people who were passed over for jobs after initial interviews and confusion about their status.
Gail McCant, administrator for Austin’s equal employment and fair housing programs, said staffers have taken a preliminary look at the complaints, but further action will depend on getting staff hired and procedures in place.
The city has hired an administrative specialist to deal with fair hiring and is interviewing for an investigator and a consultant, McCant said. The first order of business is working with the city’s legal department to draft a procedure for investigating complaints.
The city will be able to assess fines against employers beginning in April, but it will likely focus first on educating business owners and giving training in response to first violations, McCant said.
“While we want a speedy resolution to (complainant) concerns, we want to make sure that we have our staff in place, that we are educating the public about fair chance hiring,” she said.
If Workman’s bill gains traction, McCant knows the effort could be for naught: “Absolutely it can change things, but currently we are moving forward with the ordinance that has been passed.”
How ‘fair chance’ hiring rules work
Under the Austin ordinance passed a year ago, companies cannot ask applicants to check a box on a job application if they have a criminal history. 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.
The measure applies to employers with at least 15 workers. Companies that violate the ordinance may get a warning the first time, but eventually could face fines of up to $500.