Private employers in Austin may not be able to ask for conviction history

Unknown Object District 4 Council Member Greg Casar speaks to his resolution regarding a fair chance hiring practice. He was joined by Mayor Steve Adler and District 1 Council Member Ora Houston.[/caption]

UPDATE 5/22/2015: Austin City Council passed a resolution to consider requiring private employers in Austin to follow fair chance hiring practices.

Private employers in Austin might have to remove a box on job applications asking if an applicant has a criminal history.

A resolution Austin City Council is considering May 21 would direct City Manager Marc Ott to craft language and work with stakeholders to potentially create a new city law to "Ban the Box" about conviction history on job applications. Such practice is typically referred to as fair chance hiring.

"These fair chance rules are anti-discriminatory at heart and a small piece of creating opportunity, which is so important for those folks who too often aren't given a shot at employment in our communities," said District 4 Council Member Greg Casar, who sponsored the resolution.

Such a policy is already in place in six states and 25 cities, Casar said. Austin follows the practice when hiring city employees and staff.

Mark Washington, acting assistant city manager, said having the Ban the Box policy in place has helped the hiring process become more efficient and saved the taxpayers money by running fewer background checks. Background checks for city applicants are now only run once the pool of applicants has been narrowed to those likely to be offered the job, Washington said.

"There is some skepticism about such employment practices from some employers across the nation, but our report today is that we have not only survived but we have thrived as an employer," Washington said. "We have not focused on a person's inabilities based on their criminal history, but we focus more on their capabilities and have the interview based on what their relative work experience is ... and save the background check as the last part of the process."

Changing Austin's law could help solve equity issues some residents face, Casar said.

"I think that Austinites understand that we are in the midst of great prosperity, but we want to make sure that prosperity is shared and people aren't left behind," Casar said. "I hear all the time from constituents in my district that are being left behind by Austin's boom, and I want to [give a chance to] those folks that have done their time and want to be productive and want to be part of our great workforce."

Community member Matt Sheehy spoke during the May 21 news conference held before the council meeting. Sheehy said he served nearly nine years in prison for a nonviolent drug offense and thinks a fair chance policy would help other residents like him.

"Upon my return I just wanted to get back with my family, engage in the community and be a productive member of society once again," Sheehy said.

Finding housing can also be difficult for those with prior convictions, Sheehy said. The resolution by Casar does not speak to fair chance practices for housing, but it could be a step the city takes down the road, he said.

The law slated to return to the council's Economic Opportunity Committee in September could pertain to just a handful of employers, only employers that contract with the city or all employers in Austin's city limits, Casar said.
By Joe Lanane
Joe Lanane’s career is rooted in community journalism, having worked for a variety of Midwest-area publications before landing south of the Mason-Dixon line in 2011 as the Stillwater News-Press news editor. He arrived at Community Impact Newspaper in 2012, gaining experience as editor of the company’s second-oldest publication in Leander/Cedar Park. He eventually became Central Austin editor, covering City Hall and the urban core of the city. Lanane leveraged that experience to become Austin managing editor in 2016. He managed eight Central Texas editions from Georgetown to San Marcos. Working from company headquarters, Lanane also became heavily involved in enacting corporate-wide editorial improvements. In 2017, Lanane was promoted to executive editor, overseeing editorial operations throughout the company. The Illinois native received his bachelor’s degree from Western Illinois University and his journalism master’s degree from Ball State University.


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