Ordinance would delay background checks for job applicants

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AUSTIN (KXAN) —  Austin City Council is set to make a decision Thursday that could improve the chances of an ex-offender getting a job. The Fair Chance Hiring Ordinance would delay a criminal background check until the point a person is a finalist for the job.

Supporters of the Fair Change Hiring Ordinance say the intent is to do just that: give people with a criminal past a fair chance with a fresh start. But opponents say it puts an unfair burden on businesses.

Jacqueline Conn has been out of prison for a decade. A past she’d prefer to put behind her; but it isn’t that simple.

“Even after I had a graduate degree, I didn’t get a call back,” Conn said. “This last time it took me about 10 months to find a job because people were either asking on the front end in the application or they were asking over the first phone call.”

Pamela Bratton, with Meador Staffing, helps match temporary employees with a company’s specific requirements. She added that about 80 percent of that workforce end up getting offered full-time employment. Bratton says it’s a system that works, but the Fair Chance Hiring Ordinance would flip that upside down.

“It’s very problematic for the staffing industry,” Bratton said. “Is it going to discourage job creation? [It] could have that effect, because it increased your cost per hire.”

Pamela said the average cost nationwide to hire an employee is $4,000, and that’s money she said could be saved by knowing someone’s criminal background from the start.

“We have small businesses here struggling to survive in the Austin economic market. The taxes are terrible, the regulatory burden is already very, very high. The unintended consequences of these mandates are [that] we could drive out more small businesses that are struggling to survive,” Council Member Don Zimmerman said.

In a news release Monday, Zimmerman said, “I am very pleased that numerous private employers have decided on their own accord to ‘Ban the Box’ and expand opportunities for past offenders. However, like the Austin Chamber of Commerce, I am concerned with the current draft ordinance. This ordinance will create additional liability for companies as well as increase the time and cost built into the hiring process. Businesses should have the freedom to optimize their processes. The city council should push the vote on this issue back until May 2016 to allow the business community and public to fully understand the unintended consequences of such an ordinance.”

“Thousands of people coming back to the Travis County area every year from prison who served their debt to society and we don’t want to punish them for a lifetime,” Casar said.

In a joint statement with Mayor Steve Adler, Senator Kirk Watson, County Judge Sarah Eckhardt, State Rep. Elliott Naishtat, State Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, State Rep. Donna Howard, State Rep. Celia Israel, and County Commissioner Brigid Shea, Casar said, “One in three adults in Texas has a criminal record, and nearly 2,200 individuals released from Texas prisons will return to the Austin area each year. Austin families who have had direct contact with the criminal justice system are more vulnerable to long-term economic instability, which can result in lifelong impacts for formerly incarcerated people and their children. When some members of our community don’t have access to economic opportunity and mobility, our entire city suffers.”

The Austin Chamber of Commerce says they are against this ordinance as it’s written and have requested a delay on a vote until May so employers and the public can provide feedback. Their big concern is it’s going to cost more time and money, but Council Member Greg Casar says after nearly a year of debate, public input, stakeholder meetings, committee meetings and several work sessions, there’s been more than enough consideration.

In response to the chamber’s concerns, Casar said he will propose the following amendments to the ordinance on Thursday:From Council Message Board: 

Amendment #1: Requires that the city use the same guidelines as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission when assessing whether or not an employer violated the ordinance, rather than the posted ordinance language which allows the city to use its own guidelines.

Amendment #2: Allows employers to give applicants, in writing, the employer’s criminal background check processes and explanation on how the employer considers criminal history.

Amendment #3: Gives applicants 90 days to make a complaint once they’ve learned of a violation. No applicant can file a complaint more than a year after a violation.

Amendment #4: Makes the civil penalty for violation $500, the same as our other non-discrimination rules. Note that amendment #5 allows for warnings before any such penalty is incurred.

Amendment #5: For the first year after the ordinance passes, no citations shall be issued, only warnings. After the first year, an employer can receive a warning for a first-time violation of this ordinance if the employer participates in a training to understand the requirements of the ordinance.

Amendment #6: Requires that the city include a website with best practices for complying with the ordinance for employers as part of the education campaign.

Casar was joined by Mayor Steve Adler, Senator Kirk Watson, County Commissioner Brigid Shea, State Representative Eddie Rodriguez, Austin ISD Trustee and Democratic Nominee for House District 49 Gina Hinojosa, Democratic Nominee for Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore, Travis County Democratic Party Chair Vincent Harding, Council Member Delia Garza, Council Member Ann Kitchen, Council Member Leslie Pool, Austin Area Urban League Executive Director Teddy McDaniel, and Second Chance Democrats Chair Jacqueline Conn.

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