At 36, Jason Easley has made a living waiting tables, tending bar and laboring on construction jobs. He feels he's qualified to do other things, but he can rarely get an interview — a problem he blames on drug and assault convictions.
The West Baltimore man says he'd like the chance to explain his past mistakes, but he is screened out when he checks the box directing job applicants to disclose any criminal history.
"On record, I am a bad person, but I am really not a bad person," Easley says. "Not all convicted criminals are [still] criminals. They might have made a mistake before. I don't think they should have to live the rest of their lives by that one mistake, refusing them a job or a future."
Easley hopes pending legislation in Baltimore will change his fortune. The proposal would prohibit employers from asking about criminal records until later in the application process, to make it easier for ex-offenders to find work.
Proponents say the measure would be a tool to help lower unemployment in the city and get ex-offenders into the workforce. But some in the business community say it would cost employers time and money spent on job candidates who aren't appropriate employees.
Elizabeth Torphy-Donzella, general counsel for the Maryland Chamber of Commerce, pointed out that some offenses typically disqualify candidates for certain positions. A shopkeeper might not want a convicted thief working the cash register, for instance. And a child abuse conviction could prevent an individual from working in a child care center.
"It imposes on the employer an additional cost of interviewing someone who doesn't meet the qualifications of the job," Torphy-Donzella said.
Ten states and 53 cities and counties have passed laws to "ban the box," according to the National Employment Law Project. The advocacy group for low-wage workers estimates that 65 million Americans — one in four adults — have a criminal record.
Baltimore City Councilman Nick Mosby said he was prompted to sponsor the legislation because of the many calls he gets from former convicts desperate for work.
His bill would expand to private employers the city's 2007 law banning the box from applications for government jobs. The legislation would apply to businesses that employ 10 or more workers, including contractual, temporary or seasonal workers.
"I can't tell you how many folks call me in need of jobs that have gone through the criminal justice system," Mosby said. "When you serve your time, you should be able to assimilate. If you have some marijuana possession conviction from 1994 and it's 2013, that shouldn't still be haunting you."
Under Mosby's legislation, private employers could still do a background check, but it would have to be delayed until an applicant had an opportunity to interview for the job or had received a conditional job offer.
The city runs criminal background checks only on individuals who apply for government jobs characterized as "positions of trust," including police officers and workers who interact with children or handle money.
The General Assembly passed a law this year that prohibits certain state offices from asking whether a job applicant has a criminal record until an interview.
Only Philadelphia and Newark, Del., have laws broadly restricting private companies from asking about criminal history early in the hiring process, according to the employment law project. About a dozen cities and counties nationally put limits on private contractors that do business with the government.
Jason Perkins-Cohen, director of the Job Opportunity Task Force, a nonprofit that seeks to expand employment choices for low-income people, said Baltimore has a significant number of residents with a criminal background, though there are no official figures. About 12,000 to 15,000 people are released each year from Maryland prisons, he said, and many of them settle in Baltimore.
"Questions on criminal background are being used as a screening tool to screen people out of jobs," Perkins-Cohen said.
Torphy-Donzella acknowledged that some businesses automatically discard applications that show a criminal history. But "wise employers" give thoughtful consideration to all applicants, she said.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has suggested that employers ask job candidates whether they have a record only if potential convictions are related to job duties. But it is not illegal for employers to obtain a criminal history and consider the information as part of the hiring process.
"There can be legitimate reasons to not hire someone who has, for example, engaged in embezzlement as CFO," Torphy-Donzella said.
She said imposing local restrictions could make it difficult to attract companies to Baltimore. "Proposing different barriers has a consequence," she said.
Jim Randisi, owner of the pre-employment screening firm Randisi and Associates Inc., said employers need to find a balance. Not knowing whether someone has "exhibited dangerous behavior in the past" could open the company to litigation if an employee intentionally injures someone on the job, he said.
"Employers should consider the age of the conviction, what happened, how the individual has behaved since the conviction and whether the conviction has any bearing on the job duties," Randisi said.
Some companies, such as Target, have voluntarily decided to change their policies.
Molly Snyder, a spokeswoman for Target, said the retail giant announced in October that it would remove the question of previous convictions from its initial employment applications for stores in the United States. The company does ask about previous convictions later in the interview process, she said.
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A hearing hasn't been scheduled for Mosby's bill.
A spokeswoman for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said she supports efforts to help ex-offenders find work, but she hasn't decided whether to support the bill. Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young said the matter might best be handled at the state level.
This year, both chambers of the General Assembly approved bills to exclude some minor and nonviolent convictions from criminal background searches, but the proposal died in a procedural logjam in the final hours of the session. Del. Curt Anderson and Sen. Verna Jones-Rodwell, both Baltimore Democrats, said they plan to reintroduce the legislation when the Assembly returns next month.
Easley said he's hopeful the city bill will open up more job opportunities for him. He landed a construction job about a month ago through an acquaintance, and said he's working to stay caught up on his child support payments so he can get his driver's license back.
"If I am given the opportunity to get an interview, then I think I would ace it," he said.