Bill would shield job seekers from queries about criminal history

Theresa Sweeney of Portland has raised three children, done volunteer work, and earned a master’s degree — in criminology and criminal justice — from Portland State University in 2010.

But until a few weeks ago, when she became a program coordinator for Volunteers of America, she has had problems landing a job.

They stem back to old convictions, dating to 2001 and 2003, for purchases using fake credit cards and travelers’ checks. She spent seven months in prison; Utah granted her a pardon in 2012.

“When I go to apply for a job, it makes it really difficult when the first thing you see is that box: Have you ever been convicted of a felony?” Sweeney says.

“In the past, it was limited to the previous five or seven years, but now, the question is whether you have ever been convicted. Even after years being spent as a model citizen, I still have not been able to find a job with my set of skills. When I went before the Utah Board of Pardons and Parole, they said I was the poster child for what they want.”

Sweeney told her story to members of the House Judiciary Committee as Oregon lawmakers consider a bill to “ban the box,” shorthand to describe a proposed ban on employers asking about criminal history on job application forms.

House Bill 3025 parallels a similar effort, now before a work group, to amend a Portland city ordinance to extend such a ban to private employers. The Portland City Council approved a ban in 2014, and Multnomah County commissioners did so in 2007, but those bans apply only to employment by those governments.

“We also want to do it in a way that does not burden the business community,” says Midge Purcell, director of advocacy and public policy for the Urban League of Portland.

“Our goal is to get to the same place in providing opportunities for people to contribute to their community and the economy.”

According to the National Employment Law Project, 14 states and numerous cities and counties have “ban the box” policies. But most states with such laws apply them only to state or other government employment.

An apparent sticking point is when an employer can proceed to do a criminal background check, which Oregon’s HB 3025 would not preclude.

“What our ideal scenario is that the query would be delayed until a conditional offer (of employment) was made,” Purcell says. “Then the employer would make a determination about a background check and make the query if it is related to the position.”

The proposal before the Portland City Council would peg it to a conditional offer, but the Portland Business Alliance and others say that requirement would be too strict.

Sandra McDonough, its president and chief executive, says the alliance is in concert with the Oregon Association of Minority Entrepreneurs and the Hispanic Metropolitan Chamber that businesses can work with a proposed “ban the box.”

“At the same time, they must balance a need to ensure the safety of their employees and their customers by thoroughly screening job applicants,” McDonough said in a statement last month.

“Banning the box makes sense, but employers need flexibility to review applicant backgrounds during the interview process when they believe it is necessary given the nature of the job.”

At a legislative hearing, Lana Butterfield, who represents insurance agents, testified that several laws specifically bar the hiring of ex-felons for some jobs. Purcell says HB 3025 would not override such bans or background-check requirements.

“Ban the box” is one of three priorities put forth by a coalition of minority groups for the 2015 session. Unlike the other issues — paid sick leave for workers and a ban on racial profiling by police — it was not the subject of 2013 legislation.

Lawmakers may await what the Portland work group does with the city proposal before moving ahead with state legislation. The House Business and Labor Committee has scheduled a work session on the bill for April 17.

Purcell says the outcome will affect thousands, not just the 14,000 state prison inmates — most of whom will be released at some point — but also more than 32,000 under state or local supervision across Oregon.

“It’s not only an urban issue,” she says.

Sweeney says in her new job, she encounters many people who are trying to rebuild their lives.

“I saw how hard it has been for me, and I have higher education and a high skill set,” she says. “For those people who do not have these things, that barrier almost makes them give up hope.”

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