A proposal in the Baltimore City Council to prohibit employers from asking about the criminal history of prospective employees until late in the hiring process has produced a strong backlash from the business community, and in particular the Greater Baltimore Committee. The GBC had been quietly lobbying against the measure for some time, but it has become much more vocal since the measure passed a preliminary vote unanimously, and now a final vote that had been scheduled for Monday appears likely to be postponed.
GBC President Donald C. Fry said the group appreciates the intent of the legislation, but it is worried that enacting a restriction like this on the city level will make Baltimore less competitive with the suburbs. Doing business in the city is already more highly regulated than in the counties, and Fry has expressed concern that the "Ban the Box" law, as it is known, would discourage new companies from coming to the city and encourage those that are here to expand elsewhere or leave altogether.
We certainly agree that doing business in the city can be needlessly frustrating for business owners because of a bureaucracy that is often poorly coordinated and seemingly arbitrary, not to mention the much higher tax rates here. Alongside Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's goal of increasing the city's population by 10,000 families during the next decade must be a goal of increasing the number of businesses and jobs here. Anything that would detract from that aim must be viewed with great caution.
Does "Ban the Box" impose a job-killing burden on businesses? Perhaps the closest analog to Baltimore's situation would be that of Philadelphia, which enacted a very similar box-ban law in July, 2011. At the time, Philadelphia had 526,456 private sector jobs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. As of the third quarter of 2013 (the most recent period for which statistics are available), it had 532,684 jobs. More pertinently, though, the share of the immediate region's private sector jobs in Philadelphia compared to the adjacent counties in Pennsylvania and New Jersey is virtually unchanged at about 29.7 percent. That is to say, it seems not to have made much difference one way or the other.
(For comparison's sake, Baltimore City's private sector jobs increased by 5 percent during that period, and its share of the region's jobs increased slightly, from 25.2 percent to 25.5 percent, a modest reversal of a long-term trend that had seen a loss of jobs in the city and growth in the suburbs.)
The GBC (of which Sun publisher Timothy E. Ryan is a board member) has raised two specific and eminently reasonable objections to the bill as it is currently drafted. The first is that the proposal actually makes a violation a criminal misdemeanor subject to up to 90 days of jail for each offense. That is clearly unnecessary, not to mention curious, given that the goal of eliminating barriers to employment in a city where many residents have criminal convictions on their records would not seem to be furthered by creating the chance for more criminal convictions. The Philadelphia statute levies a fine for offenses, which would seem more than sufficient to give the law teeth.
The GBC's second complaint is that the proposal does not allow a prospective employer to ask about or check for a criminal record until after a conditional offer of employment is made. That's inconsistent with a similar law dealing with city government hiring, which allows for criminal background checks of all finalists for a job before an offer is made. Given that time can be of the essence in hiring, businesses ought not be required to go through a conditional offer of employment to a candidate who will turn out to be unsuitable for a particular job because of his or her criminal past.
The bill's sponsor, Councilman Nick Mosby, has agreed to an amendment that would exclude positions for which a criminal conviction would automatically disqualify an applicant, but he needs to do more to listen to the business community's concerns. His amendment will delay a final vote on the bill by at least a week. He should take the time to at least make the two changes the GBC has suggested.
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