Q: I was told that because I now have a felony on my record, I will not be able to get a job. Is that true?
A: That had often been the case until a grass-roots movement led to a class action suit against the U.S. Census Bureau, which began a snowball effect of change. Many large companies routinely would post signs and publish notices on their applications stating that "no felonies and/or misdemeanors" would be accepted. These companies considered the risk and liability of hiring a person with a criminal record to be too great.
The "ban the box" movement has slowly paved the way to new hiring laws across the nation. According to the National Employment Law Project, 13 states have accepted statewide ban-the-box fair hiring laws, with a total of 30 states creating local or state ban-the-box fair hiring policy. California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Mexico, New Jersey, Rhode Island and the District of Columbia (not technically a state) have state laws that prohibit at least some employers from asking on job applications whether an applicant has a criminal record. As with all state laws, the restrictions vary. For instance, six states — Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey and Rhode Island — entirely removed the question on conviction history on job applications for private employers, which advocates of ban the box feel is the next step. Some states only cover public employers, but the movement is hoping that most will move forward.
Though 18 states (Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Mississippi, Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Utah, West Virginia and Wyoming) have not followed suit in any way, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, Washington and Wisconsin have certain cities and counties that have created "fair chance" policies for hiring.
NELP explains, "The reduced output of goods and services of people with felonies and prison records is estimated at $57 (billion) to $65 billion in losses to the nation's economy." By allowing this group to work, the country will benefit by an increase in sales taxes and tax contributions and will save money by keeping people out of the criminal justice system. Two national chains, Target and Wal-Mart, voluntarily removed the question from their applications nationwide.
But there's another critical part involved in ex-offenders getting jobs. Removing the question from applications gets an ex-offender over the first hurdle — the screening — but interviewing and understanding what it takes to keep a job is the second part. There is no room for naiveté if one wants to stay on the job. That's where state agencies and nonprofit organizations take over to offer workplace counseling and training to help ex-offenders know what's expected.
The Safer Foundation in Chicago works with ex-offender clients, regardless of the offense, by helping them prepare for the job search and employment. Claudia Banks, marketing and communications director at Safer, says the foundation tells clients to be realistic about the barriers they face and that it may take some time. The organization also offers one-on-one counseling so they can talk frankly about their past and what landed them in prison, their work history, and their family situation. If other support services are needed — such as housing, basic skills training and substance abuse counseling — counselors will help clients get that support. Safer Foundation also works with companies that hire people with records and is always seeking and developing new employer relationships.
For those seeking more information and to find available agencies in your local area, you can search the National Criminal Justice Reference Service site (http://www.ncjrs.gov). You also can obtain the "Employment Information Handbook for Ex-Offenders." Keep in mind that ban-the-box laws can help only with the first step; changing group opinions is where the real work takes place. This is where ex-offenders must take an active role in showing a desire to leave past behavior behind and become accepted into the mainstream. It's an ongoing process that is successful for some. Taking charge of one's direction in life is all it takes.
Email your questions to workplace expert Lindsey Novak at [email protected], and follow her on Twitter @I_truly_care. To find out more about Lindsey Novak and to read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
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