Poverty in Philadelphia is tenacious. Despite a growing population and economy, Philadelphia is still the poorest of the country’s 10 largest cities, with a poverty rate stuck at 26 percent. Any effort to solve this problem must include a class of Philadelphians who are often ignored: the city’s estimated 400,000 adult residents with criminal records.
Finding living-wage employment is a critical step toward economic stability. For Philadelphians with criminal records, however, this door out of poverty is often slammed shut. Criminal background checks have become a ubiquitous part of the job application process. According to a 2012 survey, 86 percent of employers use background checks on at least some candidates.
Once an employer learns of a criminal history — even an arrest without a conviction — many just move on to other applicants. According to a 2002 survey, more than 60 percent of employers said they probably would not hire an applicant with any criminal background. Another study found that having a criminal record reduces employer callback rates by 50 percent. Qualified applicants can find themselves excluded from job opportunities based on mistakes they made decades ago and for which they have already paid their debt to society.
This bias is reflected in the staggering 27 percent national unemployment rate among returning citizens, a rate, as one recent study remarked, that is “substantially higher than even the worst years of the Great Depression.” The economic impact of this unemployment is especially stark for black and Latino workers. African Americans are 5.9 times more likely to be incarcerated than whites, and Hispanics are 3.1 times more likely.
Research suggests that employer concerns about hiring individuals with criminal records are often unfounded. Employers tend to overestimate the predictive link between an applicant’s criminal history and ability to succeed in a job. In fact, the ACLU reported in 2017 that studies show employees with records stay at jobs longer and are more highly motivated to perform than employees without records.
Not only is employer bias against applicants with criminal records irrational, in many instances it is also illegal. Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, employer policies that ban individuals with records from employment can constitute race discrimination where the policy disproportionately excludes minority applicants. The Fair Credit Reporting Act provides important protections for job applicants whose criminal background checks are issued by credit reporting agencies. Pennsylvania’s Criminal History Record Information Act prohibits employers from considering arrests without convictions in the hiring process. Under this law, employers are only permitted to consider job-related convictions, and they are required to notify applicants who are denied because of their criminal history. And Philadelphia’s Fair Chance Hiring Ordinance, also known as “Ban the Box,” forbids employers from asking about a criminal record on applications or in interviews, and prohibits them from rejecting candidates on the basis of their record if they have not been convicted for the past seven years.
Yet these laws are often overlooked. Too often, applicants don’t know their rights, and employers don’t know their obligations.
Our collective failure to allow our fellow Philadelphians a shot at finding a job drags us all down. The underemployment of people with criminal records costs the United States an estimated $78 billion to $87 billion in GDP each year.
At the Public Interest Law Center, we advocate for job applicants who have been wrongfully turned away from employment because of their criminal histories. As part of the Community Redevelopment Legal Assistance Project, a collaboration between the Law Center, Regional Housing Legal Services, Community Legal Services, and Philadelphia Legal Assistance to help stabilize Germantown, East Oak Lane, and West Oak Lane in the aftermath of the 2008 foreclosure crisis, the Law Center is working to educate both returning citizens and employers about the rights of job-seekers with criminal records.
In Philadelphia, the barriers faced by job-seekers with a criminal history are also barriers for communities, especially black and Latino ones, as they strive to move from poverty to shared prosperity. We owe it to our city’s future to give all Philadelphians a fair chance.
Claudia De Palma is a staff attorney at the Public Interest Law Center.