A person with a criminal record shouldn't automatically be disqualified from being considered for a job. Neither should a low credit score be an impediment to employment. After all, holding a job and being able to make purchases could be crucial to keeping a person out of trouble with the law. Yet many are denied those privileges.
Fortunately, that is beginning to change in many places, including New Jersey, where an Assembly committee has released a bill that would ban employers from conducting criminal background checks on job seekers until after they have given the candidate a conditional job offer. That way, an applicant has a chance to be interviewed and make a good impression.
The Opportunity to Compete Act would give people who have spent time in jail, as well as anyone who may have been arrested but never convicted, the same opportunity to compete for a job as someone who has never had a run-in with the law. The bill does not compel a potential employer to hire someone with a criminal record. But if the employer does ultimately decide not to hire an applicant because of his or her criminal past, the employer would have to say that.
The legislation allows employers to consider convictions in their final hiring criteria, but they would not be permitted to require a candidate to disclose an arrest that didn't result in a conviction, or an expunged record.
This bill is part of a national movement to "ban the box" on job applications that asks an applicant if he was ever arrested or convicted of a crime. Seeing that box checked is often reason enough for some employers guilty of discrimination to toss an application in the trash rather than also consider an applicant's positive qualifications.
Ten other states and several cities have adopted similar rules over the last 15 years. Increasingly, major employers, including the federal government, don't waste time and money on background checks until they've found a candidate they want to hire.
The New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, which has pushed for this bill, says nearly one in four Americans has been arrested or has a conviction on his record, which makes this reform meaningful to quite a few people.
The bill is applicable only to employers with 15 or more workers and it does not cancel out other relevant laws. Day care centers, for example, won't be forced to hire sex offenders. Jobs in law enforcement or with fire departments would be exempted. Additionally, employers would be protected from lawsuits.
One opponent of the bill, Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick (R., Union) raised a valid point when he said judges need to have more discretion in expunging certain crimes from a person's criminal record. That's a good suggestion, which should be incorporated into the final legislation.
Meanwhile, a separate bill pertinent to job seekers also making its way through the Legislature would prohibit employers from turning down job applicants based on a poor credit report. It's bad enough that people who have been laid off can't pay their bills on time, but it is even worse when their poor credit gets them kicked out of the labor pool. How can people be expected to improve their credit ratings if they can't get a job to pay their bills?