Council ‘bans the box,’ votes to get rid of requirement to list criminal background from job applications

Forrest Milburn

An opening for a babysitter was the first job Susan Parsons applied for after being released from prison for multiple DWIs. 

She was never hired.

“I made mistakes when I was younger and also when I was not so young,” said Parsons, a social work graduate student. “I refuse to let those mistakes define who I am.”

Since then, she has only held a handful of positions, finding herself unable to get any calls back from potential employers, who see an applicant’s criminal background early on in the hiring process because of city law.

On Thursday, city council members addressed concerns with hiring practices by voting 8-2 in favor of a fair chance hiring ordinance, which intends to remove barriers to employment for those like Parsons who have criminal backgrounds that may cause job discrimination.

The fair chance hiring ordinance includes a “ban the box” initiative, which removes the section of job applications where applicants are required to check whether they have ever been convicted of a felony, a practice fair chance supporters say discriminates against those who have attempted to rehabilitate themselves after being incarcerated.

“These people honestly pay their dues, they do their time and [they] often recognize that what they did was a mistake, but then they have to pay for it for the rest of their lives,” said Alex Cogan, a social work graduate student who supported the ordinance in a silent demonstration. “It just isn’t fair.”

According to the National Employment Law Project, more than 100 cities and counties around the country have implemented similar hiring policies. Once the ordinance goes into effect in 10 days, Austin will become the first city in the state to enact a fair chance hiring ordinance that affects private sector employers with a staff of 15 or more.

The ordinance, which was originally proposed by council member Greg Casar, also gives job applicants 90 days to make a complaint once they believe their employer has violated the ordinance, with violators facing a $500 if charged.

Many of the speakers testifying against the ordinance were representatives members of the business community, who said they have concerns that will take time to address. Goodwill representative Roberta Schwartz said the company is opposed to the ordinance because it does not address concerns with how the ordinance disallows employers from conducting background checks and asking applicants criminal background questions until they have already received a job offer.

“You want somebody to get in the door, you want them to be able to have a fair chance to be seen,” Schwartz said. 

Goodwill is already practicing fair chance hiring without any governmental mandates, according to Schwartz.

Council member Don Zimmerman, who voted against the ordinance, agreed with business concerns and argued the ordinance would allow employees more opportunities to bring claims of violations against their employers. 

“Once this ordinance gets passed, somebody could bring an accusation against a [business] and claim there is a violation even though there’s not,” Zimmerman said. 

After the council decided in her favor, Parsons went and hugged her fellow supporters.

“I had numerous DWIs, and we never think that we’re going to be the one’s who get pulled over,” Parson said. “I made connections being honest about what happened to me, but that doesn’t happen to everybody.”