A new California regulation took effect last week that puts employers on notice that adverse action based on criminal history may violate state law prohibitions on racial discrimination. The regulation closely tracks a 2012 guidance issued by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which asserts that consideration of criminal history by employers violates Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act when it adversely impacts racial minorities and is not job-related or consistent with business necessity.
The California regulation adopts, in broad terms, the same position and standards put forth in the EEOC guidance, but applies them to the state’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), which prohibits employment discrimination on grounds that are substantially similar to those enumerated in Title VII. Like the EEOC guidance, the new FEHA regulation sets forth a number of factors used to determine whether a particular practice is job-related and consistent with business necessity, including whether it takes into account “the nature and gravity of the offense,” “the time that has passed since the offense,” and “the nature of the job held or sought.”
The fact that the regulation was promulgated by the state’s Department of Fair Housing and Employment, which may sue to enforce the FEHA, may give California employers that have not already conformed their practices to the EEOC guidance an incentive to do so. Moreover, the new regulation ought to make it easier for individuals to challenge criminal history screening practices by giving them a clear basis for action under California law.
A coalition of national advocacy organizations has again urged President Obama to implement a robust federal hiring policy to give people with a criminal record a fair chance to compete for federal agency and contractor jobs. In an open letter dated July 20, the coalition called upon the President to issue an executive order requiring employers to conduct a criminal records check only after a conditional hiring offer has been made, and to adhere to current EEOC guidance on considering the results of a records check.
The administration’s recent rhetoric indicates that it may be receptive to the coalition’s proposed reforms. On July 14, the President explicitly endorsed so-called “ban-the-box” policies in his speech on criminal justice reform at the NAACP annual convention:
Let’s follow the growing number of our states, and cities, and private companies who’ve decided to ban the box on job applications so that former prisoners who have done their time and are now trying to get straight with society have a decent shot in a job interview.
Apple, maker of the iPhone and iPad, came under fire earlier this month when the San Francisco Chronicle revealed that the company was prohibiting those convicted of a felony in the last 7 years from working on the construction of an enormous new corporate campus in Cupertino, California. Under pressure from the iron workers union and advocates for fair hiring policies, the company quickly reversed course:
We recognize that this may have excluded some people who deserve a second chance. We have now removed that restriction and instructed our contractors on the project to evaluate all applicants equally, on a case-by-case basis, as we would for any role at Apple.
But many believe that Apple can do more to end employment discrimination against those with criminal records and can set an example for the tech industry and the country in the process.
In a recent series of posts on The Volokh Conspiracy blog promoting his book The Eternal Criminal Record, Professor James Jacobs “[speaks] strongly against a public policy that coerces private employers to ignore job applicants’ criminal records while leaving them to cover the costs imposed by ex-offender employees.” His arguments suggest that employers are being saddled with such costs (for which no proof whatsoever is presented) because of social activism on behalf of people with criminal records. In fact, modest legal protections for people with criminal records derive from longstanding employment discrimination law principles.
The National Employment Law Project (NELP) has published a white paper urging the federal government to increase its own employment of people with a criminal record. In “Advancing a Federal Fair Chance Hiring Agenda,” Maurice Emsellem and Michelle Natividad Rodriguez make a strong case for a federal “fair chance” hiring initiative similar to the ones put in place by state and municipal governments across the country. Specifically, background check policies and suitability standards should be reformed by presidential order to give people with criminal records an opportunity to compete for jobs with federal agencies and federal contractors from which they are now, as a practical matter, excluded.
The NELP paper points out that the federal workforce is far more decentralized than a standard civil service structure, with fewer mandated protections regulating the hiring process. Notwithstanding OPM guidelines, federal agencies have broad discretion to adopt their own hiring policies and practices, often with limited accountability and transparency. Indeed, the EEOC has been critical of the fact that federal agencies are not bound by the same suitability standards that apply to most other public and private employers. Moreover, federal contractor employees (an astonishing 22 percent of the U.S. workforce) enjoy few legal protections, and applicants may be rejected (or employees dismissed) on the basis of stringent FBI background check requirements that apply, inter alia, to anyone with routine access to federal facilities. These shortcomings could be addressed with the stroke of a presidential pen (or two strokes to be precise).
The shootings and beatings of unarmed black men, boys, women and girls by police officers are sickeningly repetitive. Also repetitive are the calls in response to diversify police departments by hiring officers who better reflect the communities and neighborhoods they would patrol. These issues have surfaced starkly in Ferguson, Missouri, where three out of 53 officers are black. There, efforts to diversify the police department have been non-existent. Similarly in Cleveland, where twelve-year old Tamir Rice was killed by an officer while playing in a park, black residents make up 53 percent of the population but black officers comprise only 27 percent of the police force.
In Baltimore, the racial composition of the police force more closely approximates the city’s population. Nevertheless, the city has paid $5.7 million since 2011 in court judgments and settlements of police brutality claims. In 2013, 70 percent of Baltimore’s police officers lived outside the city. Thus, racial diversity alone is not a solution.
The Wall Street Journal has been running a well-researched series by Gary Fields and John Emschwiller on the consequences of mass conviction. The installment last week (“Decades-long arrest wave vexes employers”) describes the dilemma facing employers caught between legal limitations on who they can hire and legal obligations to be fair. Hiring the most capable workers seems a luxury most employers can’t afford.