Los Angeles to enact ‘ban the box’ ordinance for public and private sector jobs

Second chances mean that the Rev. Gary Bernard Williams, wearing glasses and a tan suit, has gone from convict to Methodist minister. (Photo credit: Lena Nozizwe)

Nearly one in three working age adults in the U.S. has some type of criminal record, and that legal status shuts out millions of job-seeking Americans who must reveal their status on employment applications. But states, counties and cities around the country are adopting ordinances and laws that would in effect ban the box – the one on job applications that asks about criminal history. FSRN’s Lena Nozizwe reports that Los Angeles is one of the latest to do so.

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Clean cut and outfitted in a dark blue suit, soft spoken Anthony Fagan looks like a businessman on the rise. But what’s not apparent at first glance is the baggage that was weighing him down on the job market: a criminal conviction.

“I have met individuals who have been haunted by their convictions no matter what they do or how hard they work, they just can’t get a job,” says Los Angeles City Councilman Curren Price, who represents the 9th district. Most of his constituents are Latino or African-American, communities disproportionately impacted by incarceration.

A Public Policy Institute of California study found that African-American men are imprisoned at dramatically higher rates than any other demographic group in the state and face incarceration rates nearly ten times higher than their white counterparts.

The study also found that non-whites in California make up three out of every four men in prison.

Another study conducted by a Harvard sociologist found that men who told prospective employers that they had convictions were half as likely to get a callback or job offer.

Price spoke at a LA City Hall news conference, just hours before the city council voted to pass The Fair Chance Initiative.

The law, which goes into effect January 1, will prohibit employers from asking about past convictions until a conditional offer of employment has been made, instead of requiring that information on the initial job application.

“Without the stigma of a criminal record, my hope is that job candidates will be evaluated solely by their skills, their qualifications and their merits,” Price explains. “Today tens of thousands of Angelenos and their families have an opportunity to change for the better.”

The movement to eliminate the criminal history checkbox question – also known as ‘ban the box’ – has gained traction around the country. More than 150 cities and counties have already adopted versions of Fair Chance laws and 24 states, including California, have similar measures in place for public sector employment.

It’s also received federal attention.

The Federal Office of Personnel Management recently finalized a ‘ban the box’ hiring rule that, for a significant amount of positions, delays inquiries about criminal histories until a job offer is on the table. The Obama administration has also asked private companies to do the same and provide more job opportunities for an estimated 70 million U.S. residents with criminal records.

Councilman Price says the Los Angeles ordinance is one of the most progressive in the country because not only does it apply to city contractors and subcontractors, The Fair Chance Initiative also applies to private businesses with 10 employees or more. Employers who don’t comply will initially face warnings and then fines.

“I have kids, two of them. I want the same things you want. I want a home. I want to drive a nice car and I want to be part of this society,” says Kusema Thomas, who is a mentor with Homeboy Industries, a nonprofit started by a Jesuit priest three decades ago to provide former gang members – like Thomas – with job opportunities. Their motto is “nothing stops a bullet like a job.”

“When you have to check the box, it’s almost like you just don’t want to be there,” Thomas explains. “You just know that I am not going going to get this job. Nobody is going to offer me this job.”

“Every time. It’s like you go in knowing that you will be denied the opportunity,” says Amber Rose Howard, a college graduate who was convicted of a felony at age 18. “Sometimes it’s so horrifying that you are actually hired and then you will receive notice that the job has been recanted because they found out about your felony – which personally happened to me. It was a job working with youth who were at-risk of being incarcerated.”

“And this was after you graduated from college?” FSRN asks.

“This was after I obtained a college degree, Howard answers. “They hired me. I went to orientation. They selected me to work with a distinct group of students. And then after they got my record history back, they took back the job offer, strictly because of the felony record from ten years prior.”

Howard is now a community organizer who helped draft LA’s ordinance that she says goes a long way in providing justice for all.

“There is no need to be afraid,” Howard tells prospective employers dealing with the fear factor. “Our pasts do not define us. I think a lot of employers will come to learn that as we continue with this process.”

Gary Bernard Williams’ big boss is part of the process, although he admits that he struggled to recover from past drug addiction and find work after he was released from prison in 2003. He would intentionally leave the box blank and offer to discuss his past in-person with prospective employers. Today he is a Methodist pastor in South Los Angeles.

“My God is a God of second and third chances. And so I’m in the community, in the heart of south LA. My members and people in my neighborhood, in which I live and work, are people that need a second chance.”

The Fair Chance movement is hoping that legislation, not divine intervention, will mean that millions of others will get that second chance as well.

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