City Council votes for 'ban the box' law

Baltimore's City Council voted unanimously Monday to ban employers from asking about an applicant's criminal record until after a job interview  — a sweeping requirement that supporters say will make it easier for ex-convicts to get jobs.

But some businesses have objected to the proposed law, arguing it would cost employers time and money spent on job candidates who aren't appropriate employees.

The council amended the bill to exempt "facilities servicing minors or vulnerable adults" to address concerns that, for instance, employers would not be able to screen out sex offenders seeking jobs at day care centers.

The legislation — nicknamed "Ban-the-Box" after the criminal record box on a job application — still needs a final vote before advancing to the desk of Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. A top aide said she is planning to sign it.

"It's the most progressive 'Ban-the-Box' legislation out of any city in the country," said the bill's lead sponsor, Councilman Nick J. Mosby. "We're talking about growing Baltimore. It's hard to do that when you have a large segment of the population excluded from gainful employment."

But Elizabeth Torphy-Donzella, general counsel for the Maryland Chamber of Commerce, said she's worried the bill will amount to little more than a waste of time for both employers and potential employees.

"It presents real problems for businesses in Baltimore City," she said. "It sill requires a recruiter to go all the way through the recruiting process before asking about a criminal record. You could have someone with a theft or embezzlement conviction applying to a bank. The recruiting process is costly. It's time-consuming. The notion that in Baltimore City employers couldn't ask questions of someone manifestly not-qualified is stunning to me."

A crowd of supporters celebrated after council members gave the bill preliminary approval, saying it would help tear down the barriers to employment. Backers said they believe some ex-convicts could win over potential employers through a job interview they wouldn't otherwise get.

Davon Neverdon, 40, of northeast Baltimore, said he's been unable to get a good-paying job since he was charged with first-degree murder 20 years ago. He said he's had to work two-or-three jobs at a time, mainly in warehouses and through temp agencies, at low wages.

"This is second only to the birth of a child," he said of the council's vote. "We can get living wages for our families. Right now, I'm ready to go take on the work world. The sky's the limit."

Ten states and 53 cities and counties have passed such laws, 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.

Mosby has said he was prompted to sponsor the legislation because of the many calls he gets from former convicts desperate for work. More than half of offenders released from Maryland's prisons return to live in Baltimore, he said.

His bill expands 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.

"Some of the business folks still have an issue with it, but this is right for growing our city," he said..

Mosby added that he's gotten calls from lawmakers to Kentucky and New England who want to seek similar laws in their jurisdictions as well.

"I'm excited. This is just the beginning," he said.

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.

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.

The General Assembly passed a law last year that prohibits certain state offices from asking whether a job applicant has a criminal record until an interview.

Monica Cooper, co-founder of the Maryland Justice Project, cheered the council vote Monday.

"I feel that the city deserves to give its citizens a fair chance. I don't think a person should be condemned for the rest of their lives to live in impoverished conditions. I think it creates more problems. I think it creates more crime."

Neverdon echoed that sentiment.

"With this bill, I can have a little hope," he said. "We did what we did. But 20 years have gone by. I was 19 then. I'm 40 now. Can I at least get a job?"

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