By Taylor McAvoy, WNPA Olympia News Bureau
A bill prohibiting employers from asking job applicants about their criminal history on applications passed the Washington state House of Representatives with a 52–46 vote.
House Bill 1298 passed along party lines on February 7, with Republicans largely against it.
“I speak to you today with great gravity and heaviness of heart,” said Kitsap County resident Deighton Boyce as he began an emotional testimony during the bill’s first hearing last year.
He explained that he grew up in poverty, was exposed to violence at a young age and followed in his father’s footsteps as a drug dealer. Subsequently, he shed his past and is raising a son with his wife. Both of them volunteer for social work in their community. Boyce told lawmakers his criminal record keeps him from getting steady employment.
“I believe that once a person serves their time and pays their debt to society, they should be allowed the same rights and access to opportunities of success as the rest of society,” he said.
House Bill 1298, also called the “Ban the Box bill” or the “Fair Chance Act” prohibits employers from inquiring about an applicant’s criminal history until after the employer has determined the applicant meets the minimum requirements for the job.
“This bill is about jobs and opportunity,” said the bill’s prime sponsor, representative Lillian Ortiz-Self (D-Mukilteo) during a floor debate on February 7. “It’s been said that America is the land of second chances but unfortunately for many people with a criminal record, that second chance doesn’t exist.”
Representative Morgan Irwin (R-Enumclaw) supports the bill’s overall goals, but said there needs to be a middle ground. He pointed out that the House is considering House Bill 2208, which expands criminal background check requirements for current and potential state employees and contractors.
“Here we are allowing the state to expand background checks but we’re telling private employers that they will have no such ability to do that,” Irwin said.
However, under House Bill 1298, employers still have the right to turn down an applicant upon receiving their criminal history after an interview. The bill also includes exemptions for employers who hire people to work with children or vulnerable adults, and employers who are required to run background checks by state or federal laws. The latter includes state government jobs, law enforcement and criminal justice agencies.
Representative Michelle Caldier (R-Kitsap) said the bill doesn’t go far enough to protect vulnerable populations.
Bob Cooper, speaking for the Washington Defender Association and Washington Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers at the bill’s hearing a year ago said the current criminal record box on applications lumps crimes of vandalism together with violent offenders.
Irwin, at the floor debate on Wednesday, said that is precisely the problem. Lumping offenders into a single category with no distinction of the severity of the crime can be harmful, he said, adding that there should be a way to distinguish felonies from misdemeanors, but eliminating the box entirely is not the right answer.
Nick Federici, lobbyist for Pioneer Human Services, said at the bill’s 2017 hearing that banning the criminal records question would help people get jobs which in turn greatly reduces recidivism.
“It’s next to impossible to get your life back on track if you can’t get decent work,” he said.
According to the National Employment Law Project, 30 states ban the box on criminal history on applications. Local cities and certain companies also ban the box on their own.
Eric Schallon, forestry operations manager at Green Diamond Resource Company, said the ban on criminal history disclosure in an application is working for his company with no increased crime within the workplace. He also said that as a conservative, he doesn’t want to keep paying for people to stay in prison, emphasizing the opportunity for people upon re-entry to pull their own weight, not relying on state resources.
If the bill is passed, an employer who violates the provision would get a warning and offer for assistance in implementing the new policy. The company could face a fine up to $750 for a second violation and up to $1000 for a third.