Having any type of criminal record, as an estimated 70 million to 100 million Americans do, can make many aspects of life difficult — not the least of which is finding a job.

After all, more than 90% of employers do some type of criminal background check on applicants, according to studies from the National Association of Professional Background Screeners. And they can reject you if you have a record, which can make finding a job a struggle.

There are, however, rules about when this can happen and what employers have to do before they can reject you. And recently, Pennsylvania has specifically expanded some of these regulations, which may make it easier for people with criminal records to get licenses for specific jobs or even have their records sealed or expunged.

So what are your rights when you’re looking for work and you have a criminal record, and how should prospective employers handle your application? Here is what you need to know:

What can and can’t Pennsylvania employers do if I have a criminal record?

Employers can refuse to hire you based on your criminal record. But there are limitations on when and how they do that. Those protections exist on the federal, state, and local levels in Philadelphia.

The federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, for example, states that employers need to show a valid business reason if they want to reject you because of your record. They have to consider the nature and severity of the offense, the time that has passed, and the type of job for which you are applying, says Katie Svoboda-Kindle, a staff attorney with Community Legal Services of Philadelphia’s employment unit.

“If the criminal record is not related to your ability to do the job, if it’s old, if it’s minor, then it would be discriminatory for them to not offer you the job, or rescind the offer, based on your criminal record,” Svoboda-Kindle says.

Pennsylvania’s Criminal History Record Information Act goes even further. Under that law, employers can only consider:

  • felony and misdemeanor convictions — so summary offenses and arrests that didn’t result in convictions shouldn’t come into play.
  • convictions that affect your “suitability for employment in the position” for which you applied.

Also: If you’re rejected over your record, they need to tell you in writing.

Philadelphia has even more protections under the Fair Criminal Records Screening Standards Ordinance (also known as a “Ban the Box” law), which says employers cannot:

  • Ask about your criminal record when applying for a job.
  • Do a background check until after making a conditional job offer.
  • Consider convictions that are more than seven years old.

Additionally, if you are denied employment based on your record, you have a right to receive a copy of your background check, and a 10-day period to explain to the employer why your conviction shouldn’t be considered an issue.

If you get your record sealed or expunged, you don't have to disclose it to a potential employer.
CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer
If you get your record sealed or expunged, you don't have to disclose it to a potential employer.

Applying for a professional license in Pennsylvania when you have a criminal record

Many jobs in Pennsylvania require an occupational license. In the past, even old or unrelated convictions could keep you from obtaining one. But new legislation is helping change that for some fields of work.

Known as Act 53, the legislation makes it easier to get some kinds of licenses if you have a criminal record. It applies to professions regulated under the Bureau of Professional and Occupational Affairs and includes the following jobs: accountants, architects, auctioneers, barbers, real estate appraisers, real estate agents, chiropractors, cosmetologists, crane operators, engineers, land surveyors, geologists, funeral directors, landscape architects, massage therapists, car dealers and salespeople, doctors, nurses, dentists, nursing home administrators, occupational therapists, optometrists, osteopaths, pharmacists, physical therapists, podiatrists, psychologists, social workers, marriage and family therapists, speech and language pathologists, and veterinarians.

Under Act 53, you can only be turned down for a license if your conviction is directly related to a profession, or if your criminal record shows a “substantial risk” to customers or coworkers. There are some exceptions for sex crimes, drug trafficking, and serious, violent crimes.

The rules vary depending on the license, but it is much easier to determine what will happen, Svoboda-Kindle says.

“Previously, because it was so unpredictable, people didn’t want to pay for and go to school for something that they might not be able to be licensed in,” she says. “So they would just give up on their dream jobs when it’s possible that they could have been licensed. We’re hoping that this will encourage people to pursue those jobs.”

You can still be denied, but you have more recourse.

Applying for a job if your record is sealed or expunged

Getting your record sealed or expunged can also help you find a job. Sealing or expunging can either remove a record from public view or have it destroyed entirely. Then, Svoboda-Kindle says, you “do not need to talk about that record at all” if asked during the job interview process, and you can deny that it ever happened.

In Pennsylvania, some records are automatically sealed after certain periods of time, but it depends on factors like the types of convictions and the length of time since they occurred. That’s thanks to our Clean Slate law, which went into effect in 2018.

And now, the commonwealth’s Clean Slate law has expanded under Act 83, which lets you petition to get your record sealed even if you owe court fees. By the end of the year, many people won’t have to do anything, and their cases will be sealed automatically. (However, if your case includes restitution to a victim, that must be paid first.)

If you’ve been acquitted of charges, those records will be automatically expunged under Act 83, Svoboda-Kindle says. And if you’ve received a pardon for crimes, those records will be automatically sealed (previously, that required a petition).

If you’ve been rejected for a job because of your criminal record

If you’re a Philadelphian who has been unjustly denied employment due to your criminal record, Svoboda-Kindle suggests contacting CLS for advice about what to do at 215-981-3700. You can also contact them if you’ve been rejected when trying to get an occupational license, or you can visit their Act 53 webpage for more information.

And if you’re outside of Philadelphia but facing similar circumstances, you may be able to get help from the legal aid provider in your county. To find out who serves your area, visit PaLawHelp.org.

Expert sources:
  • Katie Svoboda-Kindle, staff attorney with Community Legal Services of Philadelphia’s employment unit.