Illinois set to become fifth state to cover criminal record discrimination in its fair employment law

NOTE: Governor Pritzker signed S1480 into law on March 23.

In our recent report on criminal record reforms enacted in 2020, we noted that there were only four states that had fully incorporated criminal record into their fair employment law as a prohibited basis of discrimination. These states (New York, Wisconsin, Hawaii, and California) provide that employers can only disqualify a person based on their record if it meets a specific standard, such as being related to the work in question or posing an unreasonable risk to public safety. Illinois will become the fifth state to take this important step as soon as Governor Pritzker signs S1480.

Illinois has been working up to this, having amended its Human Rights Act in 2019 to prohibit employment discrimination based on “an arrest not leading to a conviction, a juvenile record, or criminal history record information ordered expunged, sealed, or impounded.” With S1480, Illinois has now taken the final step of incorporating criminal record fully into the law’s structure, which includes authorization to file a lawsuit in the event administrative enforcement is unsatisfactory. A preliminary analysis of the new Illinois law indicates that it now offers more protection for more people with a criminal record in the employment context than any state in the Nation other than California.

The provisions of the Illinois bill, enrolled and sent to the governor for signature on February 12, are described below.  We then compare them with the laws in the four other states that incorporate criminal record into their fair employment law. This post notes the handful of additional states that have fortified their record-related employment protections in recent years, then summarizes relevant reforms that were enacted in 2020.

The new Illinois law makes it unlawful for any employer, employment agency, or labor union to use a conviction record “as a basis to refuse to hire” or to take other employment related adverse action, unless “there is a substantial relationship between one or more of the previous criminal offenses and the employment sought or held” or “the granting or continuation of the employment would involve an unreasonable risk to property or to the safety or welfare of specific individuals or the general public.” 775 Ill. Comp. Stat. 5/2-103.1(A). “Substantial relationship” is defined to mean “a consideration of whether the employment position offers the opportunity for the same or a similar offense to occur.” In making a determination under subsection (A), the employer must consider a variety of factors including the length of time since conviction, the extent of the record, the nature and severity of the conviction itself and its relationship to the safety and security of others, the age of the employee at the time of the offense, and evidence of “rehabilitation efforts.” 5/2-103.1(B). If the employer reaches a preliminary determination of disqualification or other adverse action, the employer must give written notice and an opportunity for respond, and in the event of a final determination an explanation of the reasons.” 5/2-103.1(C).

The new Illinois law compares well with the laws in the four other states that incorporate criminal record into their fair employment law. Although the Illinois “substantial relationship” standard is not as protective as New York’s “direct relationship” standard, Illinois law elaborates the standard with the same public safety emphasis and offers more procedural protections in the form of reasons and an opportunity for reconsideration. Also, unlike New York, it prohibits any consideration of non-conviction records and sealed or expunged convictions. Hawaii has a weaker “rational relationship” standard and also excludes a large number of employments, although it bars inquiry into criminal record until after a conditional offer has been made and thereafter prohibits any consideration of non-conviction records, as well as any conviction more than seven years in the past for felonies and five years for misdemeanors (as reduced in 2020). California also bars inquiry until after a conditional offer has been made, prohibits consideration of non-conviction records and records that have been the subject of judicial relief, provides considerable procedural protections, and has the strongest standard for testing the relevance of a conviction (“direct and adverse relationship”). Wisconsin’s law is the weakest of the five: it applies a “substantial relationship” standard but does not elaborate it, and it offers no procedural protections to applicants or existing employees other than administrative enforcement of this substantive standard.

The District of Columbia has also enacted robust fair chance employment protections that apply to both public and many private employers, but its law stops short of authorizing individuals dissatisfied with action by the Office of Human Rights to go to court. Colorado, Connecticut, and Nevada have recently prohibited some employers from considering certain criminal records, but those prohibitions are not fully integrated into a broader nondiscrimination law. Other states are still catching up, with many stalled at the “ban the box” stage.

Our report on new legislation in 2020 documented comparatively modest but still noteworthy advances toward fair chance employment in 6 states last year. We reprint the discussion of 2020 reforms from our report below:

In 2020, 6 states expanded access to employment for people with a record through 7 bills and one executive order. Two states (New Hampshire and Virginia) enacted a ban-the-box law applicable to public employment, while North Carolina’s governor issued a broad executive order that not only prohibited public employers from making application-stage inquiries, but also established standards for considering criminal record thereafter. Maryland’s legislature overrode a governor’s veto to apply application-stage limits on inquiry to private employers with more than 15 employees. Hawaii amended its venerable fair employment law to reduce the periods after which a conviction may not be considered by any employers.

Overall, however, these 2020 laws had limited effect on the fair employment landscape. At the end of 2020, there were still only four states (California, Hawaii, New York, and Wisconsin) that included discrimination based on criminal record as part of their general fair employment scheme, and all but California’s law were enacted many years ago. Colorado, Connecticut, and Nevada have, like Illinois, more recently prohibited some employers from considering certain criminal records, but those prohibitions are not fully integrated into a broader nondiscrimination law.

Most of the fair employment laws recently enacted involve fairly modest limits on application stage inquiry. The National Employment Law Project keeps a running tab of new “ban-the-box” laws, and reported in September 2020 that 36 states and more than 150 municipal and county ordinances now require public employers to consider applicants’ qualifications before their criminal histories, with 14 extending these limits to private employers.  However, as noted in our Many Roads report, few of these laws include the kind of robust post-inquiry standards that make the 2020 North Carolina Executive Order described below stand out.

The new employment laws and orders in 2020 are described briefly below:

  • Hawaii shortened the lookback period in which a person may be disqualified based on conviction under its fair employment law, to seven years for felonies and five years for misdemeanors, excluding periods of incarceration (SB 2193). Hawaii includes discrimination based on conviction record in its more general fair employment practices law, and under preexisting law it is an unlawful employment practice to inquire into arrest and conviction records before the employee receives a conditional offer of employment, and an employer could withdraw an offer only if a conviction within the previous 10 years (exclusive of any period of incarceration) “bears a rational relationship to the duties and responsibilities of the position.” Under this new law, 10-year period is reduced to 7 years for felonies and 5 years for misdemeanors.
  • Maryland enacted a ban-the-box law applicable to private employers with more than 15 employees, overriding Governor Hogan’s veto. The law prohibits inquiry into an applicant’s criminal record until the first interview; and authorizes civil penalties.  Certain employment is excepted. The law specifically does not preclude local jurisdictions from imposed stricter standards (HB 994). Md. Code Lab. & Empl. § 3-1403.
  • North Carolina’s governor issued an executive order (EO 158), which directs all state agencies to remove questions about criminal record from employment application forms, and to defer inquiries until “the completion of the initial job interview.” The order further prohibits agencies from considering the following: (i) expunged or pardoned convictions, (ii) charges or convictions that do not relate to the underlying employment matter, (iii) arrests not resulting in a conviction, or (iv) charges resulting in dismissal or not guilty. State employment decisions “shall not be based on the criminal history of an individual unless that criminal history is demonstrably job-related and consistent with business necessity associated with the position, or if state or federal law prohibits hiring an individual convicted of certain crimes for a particular position.”
  • New Hampshire prohibited an application-stage inquiry into criminal record in public employment prior to the initial interview, “unless the public employer is required to screen applications for specific criminal convictions because it is prohibited from hiring those with such convictions under state or federal law” (HB 253). N.H. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 275:37-c(II).
  • Utah removed an absolute barrier based on certain convictions for employment with vulnerable populations, if the applicant will be serving only adults whose only impairment is a mental health diagnosis. In addition, certain convictions cannot be disqualifying after 10 conviction-free years for felonies, and three years for misdemeanors (HB 436).
  • Virginia prohibited inquiry into criminal record by public employers prior to interview. Excepts law enforcement employment and certain other sensitive employments (HB 757). Va. Code Ann. §§ 2.2-2812.1, 15.2-1505.3.
  • Virginia added crimes to the list for which an exception is available for employment with a substance abuse or mental health program at community services boards and private providers of behavioral health services licensed by the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services. This law also allows the Department to hire individuals convicted of various crimes at a state facility if the Department determines the individual has been rehabilitated successfully and is not a risk to those receiving services (HB 1540). Virginia also decriminalizes marijuana possession, restricted public access to records relating to past arrests, charges, or convictions for this offense, prohibited employers and educational institutions from inquiring about them, and prohibited state and local officials from requiring an applicant for a license, permit, registration, or governmental service to disclose information about them (SB 2 / HB 972). Va. Code Ann. §§ 18.2-250.1; 19.2-389.3.