For the past seven months, Seattle business interests have been busy watering down a bill designed to help roughly 39,000 Seattle residents with felony conviction on their records get jobs. The question now is, once the new business-friendly legislation is reintroduced in May, will it be reduced to a series of loopholes large enough to fit most of the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce through?
"It doesn't have everything we thought should be on the table," admits Chris Stearns, chairman of the Seattle Human Rights Commission.
Last September, Seattle City Council member Bruce Harrell introduced the first version of the legislation that would prevent most employers in Seattle from viewing the criminal record of a job applicant until after a person is conditionally hired. It would have also banned employers from denying jobs solely on the basis of a person's past criminal history, unless a felony was directly related to the nature of the job. Harrell argued the bill would help break the cycle of offenders returning to jail and prison by bringing them into the labor market.
But business interests led by the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce (which represents 2,200 companies and 700,000 workers) have met with council members and human-rights activists and proposed their own changes that could give employers wiggle room to refuse hiring ex-convicts, even if they're the most qualified applicants for jobs.
They've proposed three main changes that now appear to be headed into the bill once it's refiled: (1) Instead of prohibiting background checks until a conditional job offer is made, the bill would allow employers to order background checks once "unqualified applicants" are eliminated from the pool—which gives employers the chance to weed out qualified ex-offenders before deciding to hire a candidate. (2) It provides a $150 tax incentive for employers to hire ex-convicts. This isn't a bad change—it could encourage small-business owners to hire people with felonies, if it works. (3) And while it once banned employers from considering felonies unless there was a "direct relationship" between a person's conviction and the job they seek (e.g., someone convicted of robbing banks being hired as bank security), employers now must have only a "legitimate business reason" for withholding job offers.
Human-rights advocates are most leery of the third proposal, which they say gives employers the broad discretion not to hire an applicant solely on the basis of a criminal record. Merf Ehman, a lawyer for the human-rights law firm Columbia Legal Services, says, "We'd really like to see that clarified. We'd like employers to consider factors like the age of the person at the time of the offense and the time passed before denying someone."
But business groups say that the new language promotes dialogue: "We want people who have a checkered past to be able to acknowledge it, to describe and discuss that with potential employers," explains Chamber spokesman George Allen.
Still, proponents are willing to swallow the changes if it means making Seattle the third city in the country to pass such a law. "It's not as strong as it started out," admits Ehman, adding, "It would still prevent employers from advertising 'no felons' on job listings, and that's significant."