By Donald C. Fry
Many ex-offenders seeking employment after they have paid their debt to society must overcome “the box.”
It’s the box on many employment applications that asks: “Have you ever been convicted by a court?”
To an ex-offender, this simple, straightforward question means automatic exclusion from consideration for many jobs before employers even begin considering the individual merits of job candidates.
Advocates say that having a criminal record is a problem for one in four adults in the U.S. In Baltimore, the job market includes tens of thousands of ex-offenders who must compete for work in a highly competitive post-recession job market and many businesses and nonprofits in the city actively support and participate in a wide variety of employment programs for ex-offenders.
But now, members of the Baltimore City Council are proposing “ban the box” legislation that would prohibit most private-sector employers with 10 or more employees from conducting criminal background checks on a prospective employee until after they have conditionally offered a job to the candidate.
The intention of the bill and its sponsor, Councilman Nick Mosby, is to provide ex-offenders with a “fighting chance” for gainful employment on their merits and to not be arbitrarily excluded from consideration before having a chance to demonstrate their skills and positive attributes.
However, the unintended consequences of the well-meaning bill, which the City Council will consider passing on March 24, would be to inhibit job creation in the city, not enhance it, say business and civic leaders on the board of the Greater Baltimore Committee, many of whom support ex-offender employment programs.
After meeting with Councilman Mosby last Friday and discussing provisions of the bill, GBC business leaders unanimously expressed their opposition in letters to the City Council and to Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. The legislation is counterproductive for a number of reasons.
First, its passage would impose another hurdle to doing business in the city that is not imposed in surrounding jurisdictions. No other jurisdiction in the region requires this form of government mandate on the hiring process of private-sector employers.
There are many existing rules, regulations, and expenses imposed on employers that make it more difficult or more expensive to do business in Baltimore City than in surrounding counties. This will just add a significant layer of business regulation that threatens economic growth and private-sector job creation in the city.
Second, the legislation would subject employers to criminal penalties, as well as civil penalties, should a violation of the law occur. The proposed imposition of criminal penalties on private employers is the definition of onerous and not even close to appropriate for violations of this type of law.
No matter how judiciously council members intend for criminal penalties to be enforced, their existence will create a major disincentive for private-sector hiring in Baltimore City, say business leaders.
Cases where a job offer is made and then rescinded after a background check set up seriously bad experiences for both the prospective employee and the employer. Better that the employer be informed and allowed to consider overlooking criminal records, which many employers currently do, before a job offer is made than after.
It’s also worth noting that the provisions contained in this legislation impose greater restrictions on private-sector employers than currently apply to Baltimore City government’s own hiring system, which permits criminal background checks of finalists for a position before offering employment to a candidate.
There is no legitimate justification or government benefit to imposing more stringent rules on the private sector than what is enforced in the public sector.
Although the intentions and ultimate outcome being sought by the City Council are laudable, passing this bill would more likely harm the business climate in the city. New companies or existing employers looking to expand may elect to do so in a neighboring county without this restrictive hiring procedure.
For their part, GBC business leaders who oppose this legislation recognize the goal of the sponsors and stand ready to work with members of the Baltimore City Council to reach a more suitable policy to accomplish the goals of this bill.
Creating private-sector employment opportunities for ex-offenders is an issue well worthy of attention by city policy makers but, in the experience of business leaders, it would be far more productive to incentivize businesses to accomplish this objective than for government to mandate and to threaten them.
In the interest of promoting good public policy that generates the desired outcome of expanding employment opportunity for ex-offenders, City Council members should re-think this legislation and defer it until its impact on job creation and growth in the city can be fully evaluated.
Donald C. Fry, president & CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee, writes a monthly column for The Daily Record. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. This column originally appeared in The Daily Record on Friday, March 21.