Dozens of people showed up at City Hall today to overwhelmingly urge the city council's Public Safety Committee to pass progressive legislation that would delay criminal background checks in the interview process for new employees. Council members unanimously voted the bill out of committee, forwarding it on to the full council for a vote sometime in the near future.
Among the 40 or so people who testified were several ex-offenders, both men and women, who spoke to their experiences of being perennially homeless or underemployed, ostensibly because simple background checks revealed their criminal history. "I’ve been clean and sober since 2009. I’ve worked to change my life," testified a 56-year-old man named Mr. Lombarti. "I’ve been homeless since 2007 when I was released from jail. I tried to apply to jobs but I was repeatedly denied."
"I'm a convicted felon, I served my time, I have training but I can't get a job because I'm a convicted felon," simply testified another man, Mr. Shroeder.
It seemed pretty clear that committee members supported the spirit of the legislation, the larger question was, in what form? Several amendments were proposed to the bill today, but civil rights advocates took issue with one opposed by council member Sally Bagshaw in particular.
Bagshaw's pro-business amendment would've given employers more freedom in refusing to hire ex-offenders. The legislation already empowered employers to refuse to hire ex-offenders if they have a "legitimate business reason" and believed "in good faith" that their past crimes:
1. Will have a negative impact on the employee’s or applicant’s fitness or ability to perform the position sought or held.
2. Will harm May harm or cause injury to people, property, or business assets, or business reputation
But Bagshaw's amendment struck through "Will have" and replaced it with "May have" in both clauses. This may seem like a slight change but it has larger legal ramifications, as numerous civil rights and legal organizations testified today.
Here's how the Seattle Human Rights Commission, which helped draft the original legislation, explains the effect of Bagshaw's amendment:
The Commission is very concerned that the Committee may consider an amendment to the bill that would create a loophole so large that it could undermine the entire purpose of the bill. The amendment would further weaken the already weak “legitimate business reason” exception by changing “will” to “may” and thus no longer require employers to believe that a certain crime will have a negative impact or will cause harm or injury to the business. Instead the employers will be able to avail themselves of the legitimate business exception by simply saying “in good faith” that they believe a crime “may” have a negative impact or cause harm or injury to their business. That is such a broad and tenuous standard that in practical terms, it makes any crime subject to the exception. The exception would swallow the rule. The Commission strongly opposes any such amendment. We urge the Committee to reject the amendment.
Civil rights advocates such as the Defender's Association, homeless shelters, and the Homeless Prevention Program (which is part of the nonprofit, Solid Ground) also urged council members to pass the measure as-is, without Bashaw's controversial amendment.
Merf Ehman, an attorney for the nonprofit Columbia Legal Services, explained that earlier changes to the legislation—specifically, removing language that stated employers couldn't refuse to hire an otherwise qualified applicant based on their criminal history unless their was a direct link between the job and their criminal record (like a convicted bank robber applying for a bank security job)—had already watered down its potency and civil rights groups only continued to support this legislation because of its strong "will" wording.
"If it does put a burden on the employer, even slight, I think that's a good thing," said Harrell, siding with Ehman and civil rights groups. "The 'may' standard becomes so weak that it virtually becomes meaningless."
"I don't see how we could enforce this [legislation] with 'may,'" agreed council Mike O'Brien, adding that "we need some standard to hold [employers] up to."
(Meanwhile, Bagshaw boasted about being on a King County ex-offender re-entry coalition, even as she offered up this amendment to basically undercut important, progressive legislation to help ex-offenders at the behest of business interests. Personally, I found her comments incredibly disingenuous, and well, weasely. Bashaw's a former lawyer—she knew what kind of effect her amendment would have on the bill.)
In the end, the committee voted 3-3 on Bagshaw's amendment (with Bagshaw, Jean Godden, and Sally Clark voting for Bagshaw's amendment and Harrell, O'Brien, and Nick Licata voting against it). Ties fail in the council, so Bagshaw's amendment was shelved.