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Seattle Bans Automatic Disqualification of Job Seekers


Seattle joined other municipalities on Monday when the City Council voted to prohibit employers from automatically disqualifying an applicant because of an arrest or conviction.

In many cases in other cities, this type of legislation is known as “ban the box” because the question and an area to check if the person has a criminal history are removed from applications. 

The Seattle job assistance ordinance, which passed unanimously and received feedback from businesses, advocates and residents, is designed to cut criminal recidivism and boost public safety, City Councilmember Bruce Harrell, who leads the public safety committee, said in a statement.

“The data resoundingly (confirm) when employment rates increase, crime decreases,” he said. “…The legislation is important in making our local economy work for everyone, removing barriers to accessing jobs and creating a pathway for re-entry and success.”

Under the bill, an employer in the city can ask about an applicant’s criminal background but only after that person has had an initial meeting, Harrell’s office said. A criminal record no longer makes a person ineligible for a job in Seattle.

Should an employer want to disqualify a person who has an arrest or conviction, Harrell’s office said the person who is hiring must:

1. Tell the applicant or employee the information that is being used to make the decision;

2. Give the person being considered for the job a “reasonable” opportunity to offer an explanation or correct any information;

3. Provide a “legitimate business reason” for the decision.

Seattle joins the city of Atlanta, which approved a similar measure in March but for municipal government jobs. The National Employment Law Project reports that at least 40 cities and counties have removed questions about a person’s criminal history from the job application process because they are considered to be barriers.

On Tuesday, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed two lawsuits against BMW and Dollar General, charging that the companies used criminal background checks to “screen out” workers, the Washington Post reported, noting that both businesses deny doing anything wrong.

Seven states, the media company said, have laws that prohibit those who hire to ask about criminal background histories on applications.

In Seattle, Karen Lee, chief executive of Pioneer Human Services, supported the Monday decision by the City Council. Her organization works in 60 locations in Washington state.

“We speak from experience when we say that people with criminal histories can make great employees,” she said in a statement. “The majority of our manufacturing workforce includes people with criminal conviction histories, and they are the cornerstone of our business model.”

Michael McElvaney, general manager at PayMax Car Buyers, echoed Lee’s perspective. “We create a system wherein people are placed back into society with no hope, with few opportunities, with little chance of gaining employment,” he said.

“…And we wonder why they again become ‘desperate’ and re-offend? My question is, what option did we leave them with?”

The University of Washington estimates that about 409,000 people in King County, which includes Seattle, have criminal convictions.


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