A proposal to bar New Orleans and the contractors it hires from asking whether job applicants have criminal records received unanimous support from a City Council committee on Thursday.
Commonly referred to as “ban the box,” a reference to the check boxes on job applications asking whether a potential employee has a criminal record, the ordinance has been pushed by advocacy groups focused on labor issues, racial equality and the rights of the formerly incarcerated.
Dozens of people, many of whom said they have had difficulty finding employment because of their criminal records, spoke in support of the measure and argued that more needs to be done to help people get back on their feet after they get out of jail.
“Y’all got to give us a chance,” said Reginald Anderson, who works for city contractor Richard’s Disposal and said he’s had trouble finding a better job because he served time for “a bag of weed.”
The five council members who attended the hearing voted unanimously in favor of the ordinance, which was sponsored by Councilwoman Kristin Gisleson Palmer, suggesting it will have easy passage when it comes before the full council.
The ordinance bars the city and its contractors from requesting information on job applicants’ criminal history on initial employment applications and requires that criminal background checks be conducted only after an applicant has been given an initial interview. Advocates argue that such a delay gives people with a criminal history a chance to make the case for a job before their record comes into play.
“Moving this screening further into the process allows applicants to show the best version of themselves at the outset,” Palmer said.
The ordinance codifies a policy covering city departments that was put in place in 2014, and extends those requirements to firms or organizations that get contracts or grants from the city.
City officials would be barred from entering into agreements with outside entities if they do not follow the city’s policy or provide written reasons why they do not.
The rules would not affect private companies that are not doing business with the city.
Supporters of the measure and some council members argued that weeding out applicants based on their criminal history puts more of a burden on black residents.
“There are pillars of the American criminal justice system that are based on racism and preserving racism,” Councilman Jason Williams said, decrying “the idea that someone who has paid a debt to society now has to walk around with a scarlet letter on their chest and their family home.”
Many of the people who spoke to the committee Thursday said they had personally encountered problems getting a job after getting out of prison.
Earl Hunt, who said he was released several months ago after serving five years in prison, said that having to put down his criminal history on job applications was “a huge load — to not be able to go somewhere and apply and get a job somewhere based on my merits, my character and my ability.”