Politics & Government

Bills would ‘ban the box’ that asks job seekers to disclose criminal history

Paying a debt to society extends beyond a jail sentence for thousands of Washingtonians like Lisa Kurek.

Kurek, 45, was arrested three times for drug possession in the 1990s. After the Bremerton resident got out of jail in 1998, she could not find work for more than a year. She says she has worked hard to put her past behind her — staying clean since 2003 and earning a master’s degree — but her convictions have continued to be a stumbling block.

“I have been told numerous times that I have been denied employment because of my criminal record,” she said. “I have done everything I can to redeem myself.”

Kurek testified last month before state lawmakers in support of a bill that would prohibit employers from asking about criminal history until the applicant is proven “otherwise qualified,” meaning they meet the basic criteria of the job, according to the bill.

Additionally, the law would prohibit all employers from advertising jobs in a way that excludes people with criminal histories. Applicants could not be rejected for failing to disclose criminal information.

The bill is part of an international campaign known as “ban the box,” which aims to eliminate the check box on job applications that indicates past criminal offenses.

Rep. Lillian Ortiz-Self, D-Mukilteo, said 29 states have adopted the policy.

“We want to be state No. 30,” she said.

Some communities in Washington already have adopted “ban the box” policies. One is Tacoma, where the City Council voted unanimously in 2015 to remove questions about criminal history from applications for city jobs. Councilman Ryan Mello said the city has seen an increase in workplace diversity over the past few years, in part because of the policy.

“It makes no sense that they should keep paying the price once they have paid their debt to society,” Mello said. “It is in the interest of the community to help people reintegrate.”

Sen. Michael Baumgartner, R-Spokane and the sponsor of an identical bill in the Senate, said the proposal is one piece of helping people stay out of prison.

“The best way to prevent recidivism is for people to have jobs,” he said.

The bills do provide exceptions that would allow employers to ask for criminal histories of applicants for certain jobs, such as law enforcement, volunteer work or positions in which the employee would have unsupervised access to children or disabled adults.

Patrick Connor, Washington state director of The National Federation of Independent Business, said all businesses have a right to know their applicants’ history. Prohibiting them from asking about it upfront could make the hiring process longer and more costly, especially in workplaces where employees are required to obtain specialized licenses that aren’t available to people with criminal histories, he said.

“There is a role for government to play in better equipping those individuals for better opportunities,” Connor said. “Putting another restriction on small businesses is not an acceptable solution.”

Rep. Matt Manweller, R-Ellensburg, signed onto the House bill but has concerns that the policy could hinder applicants as much as it helps. If an application does not have a place for an applicant to indicate he or she does not have a criminal history, employers might assume the answer based on race, he said.

Some research exists to support that concern. The National Bureau of Economic Research studied trends among about 3.7 million people across 32 states with state, county or city-level “ban the box” policies, including Seattle, Spokane and Pierce County. It found that employers are more likely to assume young, low-skilled black and Hispanic men had a criminal record unless proven otherwise.

Supporters acknowledge the legislation wouldn't stop people from making assumptions based on race, just as they do now. Manweller is working to add a provision that would require the state to study whether the policy ends up having adverse effects, an idea Ortiz-Self supports.

Kurek says the legislation would have helped her get on her feet faster. She now works with recovering addicts as a housing case manager for West Sound Treatment Center and volunteers at correctional facilities, including the county jail she was in and out of nearly 20 years ago.

“My life is very different on paper,” Kurek said. “I just ask for the opportunity to be who I am and not who I was.”

Forrest Holt: 360-943-7240, @forrest_holt