Victory! Seattle Bans the Box

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The Seattle City Council voted unanimously to enact a law that would prevent employers from automatically rejecting any applicant with a criminal record.  The goal of the bill, sponsored by Councilmember Bruce Harrell, is to reduce the long-term effects of a criminal record by allowing applicants to be considered on their merits before being denied simply because of a record.  The bill has three key features.

First, the law bans the box on many applications asking if an applicant has ever been arrested or convicted of a crime.  This would prevent employers from simply screening out anyone who checks yes. Instead, employers would have to first identify qualified applicants, and only then ask about criminal history.  The law also prohibits employers from posting ads which require “clean” criminal history or otherwise show that the employer won’t hire anyone with a record under any circumstances.

Second, the law requires employers to give applicants an opportunity to explain their criminal history.  When an employer runs a background check, it will have to let the applicant know and hold a job open for 48 hours to give the applicant an opportunity to explain his personal circumstances.

Third, an employer can deny an applicant if it has a “legitimate business reason.”  A legitimate business reason exists when an employer has a good faith reason to believe that applicant will pose a harm to people, property, or business reputation.  So, if a conviction is related to the job responsibilities or environment, the employer can deny the applicant. But when the conviction is not related to the job, an employer cannot deny the person simply because of a record. The bill goes into effect on November 1, 2013.

I was there during the vote and testified in support of the bill.  Person after person acknowledged that the United States is criminalizing and incarcerating huge numbers of people, and that mass incarceration is doing tremendous harm to our communities.  Every single person testifying —even the representatives of business groups that were concerned about the bill—recognized how important it is to give people second chances and a meaningful shot to make an honest living. 

This victory is due in large part to the tremendous leadership of Merf Ehman with Columbia Legal Services (CLS).  The ACLU, CLS, the Seattle Human Rights Commission and many other organizations have been working hard to change the conversation around how we as a society reintegrate those with criminal records.  And Monday, we saw how much progress we’ve made.  You can read articles about the new law here and here.