Mar. 16, 2016 12:35 pm

The city’s new fair hiring law is a big deal. Here’s why

Ban the Box is a big step in the right direction, but there's still lots of work to be done.

Ban the Box.

(Photo by Flickr user Flazingo Photos, used under a Creative Commons license)

Correction: A previous version of this story contained an incorrect statement regarding Clean Slate legislation and the expungement of felonies.
Thousands upon thousands of systematically unemployed ex-offenders in Philadelphia now have the opportunity to get back to work.

Signed by former Mayor Michael Nutter at the end of his second term late last December, an expansion of Philadelphia’s original fair hiring law — or, Ban the Box — was enacted earlier this week. The new law, spearheaded by Councilman Curtis Jones, Jr., contains some noteworthy changes.

Those amendments include an extension of the law to businesses of all sizes (employers formerly had to have 10 or more employees, ruling out many small businesses) and a limitation preventing employers from considering criminal convictions from over seven years ago, among others.

The changes were developed by a working group under Jones comprised of a number of advocates like Community Legal Services attorney Brendan Lynch, who believe the newly amended fair hiring law will have a direct positive impact on the city’s impoverished communities.

“I’ve seen multiple clients, just in my own personal caseload, who have been turned down for entry-level, low-wage jobs due to convictions that were at least 30 years old,” Lynch said. “This bill is, for the first time, going to tell employers that when they exclude someone based on a record, it can only be a record which the most up-to-date social science says actually reflects some likelihood that they’ll commit a crime in the future – namely, convictions from within the last seven years.”

The amendments were a collection of best practices from other jurisdictions and recommendations of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Those amendments, Lynch said, were “essentially a collection of best practices from other jurisdictions” and “from the recommendations of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

CLS and local advocacy groups like X-Offenders for Community Empowerment were instrumental in designing the original law, which was proposed by then-Councilmember Donna Reed Miller in 2011. Lynch said the original law was modest.

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“For too long, people who finished paying their debt to society years ago were turned away from jobs due to the fear-based stereotype that a person who’s been convicted will always, for the rest of their lives, pose a significantly elevated risk of committing a future crime compared to someone without a record,” he said. Now, employers won’t have an easy time falling back on that stereotype.

Yet, some folks are claiming the law is unconstitutional.

“Say hello to the rapist in the next cubicle, just don’t ask him about his rape conviction!” writes local construction attorney Wally Zimolong on his firm’s blog. Zimolong’s argument is that the prohibition on asking questions about conviction during the application process is a restriction on free speech — a fundamental right he believes courts won’t take kindly to being encroached upon, if the law were ever challenged.

Lynch said he hopes employers will cease checking criminal records altogether for jobs that don’t involve work with vulnerable populations or the handling of sensitive information.

(Lenfest Foundation board chair Keith Leaphart told us last month that while he was doing his medical residency, ex-offenders working at hospitals “couldn’t even pass a lunch tray.”)

“We’re talking about America here, where you’re defined by what you do,” said William Cobb, founder of REDEEMED, an advocacy organization working to eliminate systemic employment discrimination practices. “If you ask somebody what they do and they don’t have a response to that, they don’t feel good about themselves. You feel separated. You feel like a second- or third-class citizen.”

"Employers not being able to go beyond seven years opens up all sorts of job opportunities that weren’t available to me before."
William Cobb

Too many Philadelphians feel that way, and Cobb would know — his conviction is 27 years removed.

“Employers not being able to go beyond seven years opens up all sorts of job opportunities that weren’t available to me before,” he said. “Lots of times, what we’ve discovered is that many of us have given up on the traditional job market. You’ll find we’ve become entrepreneurs or you’ll find out we’re living in inextricably deep poverty, being supported by family and friends.”

Education on the new law and the rights ex-offenders have, Cobb said, will be a vital part of ensuring its impact — both socially and economically.

“This will help bring people out of poverty and will help increase wage taxes for the city,” said X-Offenders founder Wayne Jacobs. “This will now give [ex-offenders] a second chance of becoming a benefit to the city in terms of their tax base. That’s what it’s all about. It’s all about bringing people out of poverty, and this legislation addresses that.”

But there’s still work to be done on the re-entry front. Lynch said next up is getting better Clean Slate laws — the sealing of certain low-level misdemeanors — advanced at the state level.

“Under Clean Slate, there would be automatic sealing of many more convictions without the need to pay $135 to file a petition asking a court for expungement,” Lynch said. “Of course, only certain people would qualify, and law enforcement would always be able to see record when they needed them, but employers, landlords, and others would be prevented from learning about the old records of people who had stayed out of trouble for an extended period.”


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