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'Ban the Box': LA mulls law to bar employers from asking about criminal past

Los Angeles is considering a motion on a proposed law that would bar employers from asking a job applicant about his or her criminal history on an application as a way to help ex-felons get jobs, reintegrate into society and avoid recidivism.

If L.A. were to adopt such an ordinance, it would be the latest victory in the "Ban the Box" campaign by All of Us or None, a group of formerly incarcerated people, to push for the elimination of the checkbox on job applications asking if a person has been convicted of a felony (or, in some cases, a misdemeanor). The group is pushing to ban such questions from private employers and on housing applications.  The National Employment Law Projecthas also been a big advocate for the ban the box campaign. 

Similar ordinances have passed in more than 50 cities and states, including Boston and Oakland.

They are designed to encourage employers to judge an applicant based on his or her work history, skill and character before a background check turns up an applicant's criminal history. Proponents argue such measures are important especially as realignment has shifted custody responsibility for many state prisoners to local county jails.

“Let’s see if they’re qualified, and maybe ask that question at the end, if at all,” said L.A. City Council Member Curren Price, who introduced a motion last month to study what a proposed ordinance would look like in Los Angeles.

On a June Friday, about a hundred people in orange T-shirts demonstrated in support of the ordinance at Los Angeles City Hall, yelling, “Ban the box! Ban the box!”

Some in the audience wiped their shaved heads when a man sporting facial tattoos took the podium to say he hadn’t gotten a call back from one potential employer in the eight months since he left jail.

“If they don’t give us a job. What are we supposed to do?” asked Gabriel Lopez. “Go back to the same old lifestyle? That’s what we’re not trying do.”

RELATED: Should employers be banned from asking if job applicants have convicted crimes?

In other cities, laws differ. Some ban questions about an applicant's criminal history from governmental job applications. Compton requires businesses with city contracts to adopt the same hiring standards that Compton's ban the box initiative does.

San Francisco's law is more expansive. It bans a question about criminal history from applications for municipal jobs, city-contracted business jobs, jobs for private companies that have 20 more employees, and affordable housing applications.

The Los Angeles ordinance would go beyond a state law that already bans the criminal convictions question from city job applications. That state law, AB 218, which took effect Tuesday, requires all state, county and city governments to remove the criminal convictions question from initial public job applications, though it allows agencies to ask about criminal history later in the hiring process.

So why ban questions about criminal history on applications if an employer will discover an applicants' history later in the process? 

“If you ban the box — and the application states or the employer tells you the next step in the hiring process is a background check  — you’re still in trouble,” said ex-felon Delvon Brown.

Brown got into a bar fight two years ago and was convicted of assault. He’s been working part-time driving a water delivery truck but is looking for full-time work with medical benefits.

He applied for a job with a trash collection company that never asked the question, but Brown said he was upfront about it during the interview. He was given a start date, but at the last minute, Brown said, the employer disqualified him after a background check confirmed his felony conviction.

“I think employers need to outline why they feel the need to do a background check,” Brown said.

Gowri Ramachandran, an employment law professor at Southwestern Law School in Los Angeles, said that employers should justify how past convictions relate to an applicant’s ability to perform the job safety and effectively.

“So if you’ve been convicted of embezzling money, and you’re applying to work at a bank, then it’s probably fine under federal law for an employer to exclude for that reason,” she said.

There is a lot of gray area when past convictions loosely relate to workplace safety.

Employers could be violating Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act when they ask about criminal history or disqualify an applicant based solely on the fact that they have criminal record. But Ramachandran said that’s very difficult for rejected applicants to prove. 

“They would also have to collect evidence that this particular reason, like a felony conviction, really does disparately impact people of color or disparately impact men versus women, or that sort of thing,” she said.

Kim Hopkins runs an electrician company in Tujunga, which contracts with big box stores like Home Depot. He doesn’t ask the “have you ever been convicted of a crime” question in his job applications. When he’s on the phone with people applying for a field electrician position, he asks: “'We’re going to be having to do a background check on you. Is that going to work out?'" he said. "And typically, I will lose about 25 percent of the potential employees right there."

Hopkins said he does background checks on most of his employees because they are working in people’s homes with potentially valuable property or in schools and businesses with vulnerable populations like children.

But applicants for jobs as receptionists or working in his front office don’t have to clear a seven-year background check. Hopkins said he doesn’t have black-and-white hiring standards.

“They can have tattoos all over their entire bodies, and it doesn’t matter,” he said. “It only makes a difference when they are in the softer elements of customer relations.”

The Los Angeles City Council is out on recess most of July so the motion to study what ban the box ordinances other California cities have adopted will probably take time.

And it’s the same for most ex-felons: time or distance since their conviction usually determines what happens next.

City Compton San Francisco Oakland Boston, MA
Year in Effect 2011 2014* 2007 2006
Municipal Jobs Yes Yes Yes Yes
Contract jobs Yes Yes No Yes
Private employers No Yes, companies with 20 or more employees No No
Housing applications No Yes No No
Background checks Only after a conditional offer has been made to job applicant Must give notice to applicant **Only after a candidate has been selected Only for qualified applicants. Must give notice to applicant

*San Francisco first "banned the box" for municipal jobs in 2005. Additions were made in 2014.

**Oakland's policy on background checks was implemented in 2010.