Austin businesses respond to fair chance hiring

Austin’s fair chance hiring ordinance—which prohibits most private employers from asking about a job applicant’s criminal history before extending an offer—went into effect April 4, and area businesses are giving mixed feedback about putting the policy into practice.

Austin is the first city in the southern United States to adopt a fair chance hiring policy that applies to private employers, according to data from the National Employment Law Project. In Austin the new ordinance  applies to businesses with 15 or more employees and does not apply to positions for which a prior law disqualifies candidates with a criminal history.

Twenty-one states and more than 100 cities and counties have approved fair chance hiring—sometimes called “ban the box,” which refers to the removal of the criminal history question on job applications—for the public sector, and about 14 percent of those policies also apply to private businesses.

Austin businesses respond to fair chance hiringA social justice issue

District 4 City Council Member Greg Casar said the passage of the fair chance hiring ordinance is a significant step for Austin that shows the city’s commitment to social justice. Casar proposed the policy last year and led efforts to refine the ordinance based on stakeholder feedback. Austin passed a “ban the box” policy in 2008 that applied only to city job applicants.

It was a really long journey, but I think it really shows this new council is dedicated to thinking of local government in a more bold and progressive way than we might be used to,” Casar said. “This is, at heart, an anti-discrimination, civil rights piece of legislation, but I believe it also to have great benefits [for public safety and economic development].”

Several dozen Austin residents and business owners testified before City Council both in favor of and against the fair chance hiring policy March 24. Some speakers said they had a criminal record and were unable to obtain jobs when employers required criminal history information upfront—even when their convictions were unrelated to the position in question.

Resident James Atkins said he was unable to find employment for years after a marijuana possession conviction for which he served no prison time, even though his experience and qualifications had previously earned him a position managing teams of 40 to 60 people and negotiating multimillion dollar deals. The fair chance hiring ordinance means he and many other Austin residents will now have a better chance at securing employment, Atkins said.

“I could not get a job—I couldn’t,” he said. “This [new policy] means a chance to prove my merit. This means the chance to show what I’ve done and what I’m capable yet of doing.”


Austin businesses respond to fair chance hiring Area businesses give mixed feedback about putting Austin’s fair chance hiring ordinance into practice.[/caption]

Austin businesses have one year to adopt the fair chance hiring policy, after which employers found in violation will receive a warning for a first-time offense and a fine of up to $500 for subsequent offenses.

For some businesses, implementing the new policy may not be simple or cost-effective, Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce spokesperson Jose Carrillo said.

“We don’t feel that it’s good business to have the background check when you make somebody a job offer, which is toward the end of the [hiring] process, because there are costs involved,” Carrillo said.

Pamela Bratton, vice president of staffing firm Meador Staffing Services, voiced concerns March 24 about how the new policy would impact temporary staffing firms like hers, which need to provide employees at a moment’s notice and could lose time, money or clients if a background check is postponed until the end of the hiring process. City Council then made an exception to the policy for temporary staffing firms that allows them to run background checks after placing applicants in a pool of job candidates but before offering them a temporary assignment.

Austin Apartment Association spokesperson Paul Cauduro said implementation may also be challenging for Austin companies that manage properties in multiple cities and will have to reconcile different hiring policies. Cauduro said the property-management industry already recommends running background checks later in the hiring process, but that a mandate to hold checks until the end of the process could cause problems when hiring employees that have access to residences. 

“Finding a good maintenance technician is very difficult, so [property managers] don’t want to lose out,” Cauduro said. “They want to find out up front someone is disqualified so they can keep their options open.”

District 8 Council Member Ellen Troxclair, one of two council members who voted against the policy, said the potential financial and time burdens on businesses were not her only concern about the ordinance. The passage of fair chance hiring for private employers also makes a statement about the government’s role in mandating what was previously a voluntary process.

“The size of the bigger businesses already allows them to enforce a policy like this, but it’s not the government’s job to mandate when a private business owner should be permitted to do a background check,” she said. District 6 Council Member Don Zimmerman also voted against the policy.

Austin businesses respond to fair chance hiring

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Spreading the word

Flux Resources—an Austin recruitment firm that supplies architecture, engineering, technology and business professional employees—already utilizes a fair chance hiring process and hopes to be an advocate and model for the new citywide policy, Flux Vice President Bobby Dettmer said.

“I just feel like if people start doing it the way we’re doing it, I think they’ll notice it takes them a lot less time to find the right person [for the job],” he said. “That’s what I’m hoping.”

Dettmer said the background check Flux uses, which includes a drug screening, costs about $87. While opponents of the fair chance hiring ordinance raised concerns about money and time wasted by finding out a candidate is ineligible for a position at the end of the hiring process, Dettmer said Flux saves money by only running background checks on candidates who have been offered a position by a client. He said he only had to restart the hiring process when a candidate did not meet the client’s background check requirements a handful of times.

Carrillo said there are about 7,000 companies in Austin employing 15 or more people, and informing them all of the policy change will be one of the biggest implementation challenges.

Casar said the city will begin an education campaign to inform the public about the policy in the near future but did not provide a date. City staff estimated the first-year cost of education and implementation would be $345,000.

Austin businesses respond to fair chance hiringTraci Berry, a spokesperson for Goodwill Central Texas, said she wished the policy had included a specific plan for public education. Goodwill practices “ban the box” but testified against the ordinance because the mandate does not allow for situations in which it might be helpful for applicants to know up front that a criminal background could disqualify them for a position, Berry said.

“What I would have liked to have seen instead of a mandate is [the support of] a space that has transparent conversation with the people you want to hire,” she said. “Real change comes with education and people saying, ‘We want our community different, and this is how we’re going to do it.’”


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