“Give a man a fish, and he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish, and he eats for a lifetime.” So the old adage goes. John Perkins adds, “But it matters who owns the pond!” And from Shane Claiborne, “Others must be looking at who polluted it.” And I would like to offer that it matters a great deal “who holds the key to the gate and makes the rules about access to the pond.”
Nearly every state allows employers to discriminate against job applicants with criminal records. All but ten allow for the exclusion of people simply arrested but never convicted. A wide range of professions are off-limits to those with criminal records due to licensing restrictions, including occupations with no clear connection to the nature of the offense on the record. These occupational licenses that are off-limits include self-employment jobs such as for a barber, manicurist, or gardener.
Employers regularly include a box on a job application that applicants must check if they have ever been convicted of any crime, many times also including arrests even if there was never a conviction. Many employers include misdemeanors, virtually all ask about felonies. And most employers are unwilling to even consider hiring a self-identified criminal. So once that box is checked, guess which pile the application ends up in? No callback, no interview, no opportunity to reveal one’s qualifications for the job at hand. One survey reveals that more than two-thirds of companies reported using criminal background checks for their hiring decisions. This same survey shows that for 74% of the decisionmakers, nonviolent felonies are very influential in the decision not to hire someone.
Employers are not supposed to discriminate against those with criminal records in these ways. You know, the law supposedly says they can’t. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued guidelines advising employers that discrimination against people with criminal histories is only permissible if employers conduct an individualized assessment of the applicant. This individualized assessment must include a consideration of the nature and gravity of the offense(s), the time that has passed since the conviction and/or completion of the sentence, and the nature of the job held or sought.
Of course, if other laws prohibit people with certain specific convictions for particular jobs, these must be screened. But in all other situations, which are the majority, an absolute bar to employment based on criminal records violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act when the bar has a racially disparate impact. Because of all of the disproportional rates of incarceration and stereotyped criminality associated with people of color (see many of my prior posts), the racially disparate impact has not been hard to find.
In fact, just a few years ago, a study found that nearly one-third of young black men in the U.S. are out of work, and the jobless rate for young black male dropouts, including those incarcerated, is a staggering 65%. *see Bruce Western, Punishment and Inequality in America, pp. 90-1.
Yet, despite laws to the contrary, employers routinely violate these guidelines. A National Employment Law Project (NELP) study of Craigslist.com found hundreds of ads that blatantly disregard the law and discriminate against people with criminal records. For example, they say things like
“No Exceptions! . . . No Misdemeanors and/or Felonies of any type ever in background”
“DO NOT APPLY WITH ANY MISDEMEANORS / FELONIES”
“You must not have any felony or misdemeanor convictions on your record. Period.”
And the list goes on. It is no wonder that the NELP titled their report “65 Million Need Not Apply”.
Add to these problems of getting past the application stage the issues of even finding the job in the first place or if one is lucky enough to get a job, then actually keeping it. Those with criminal records, especially the formerly incarcerated, re-enter society often with very few resources to their name. They don’t have appropriate interview attire, work clothes, and transportation is often a nightmare. Driver’s licenses are often suspended, and even if it isn’t they likely won’t have a car. So they must rely on public transportation, which in many places makes it virtually prohibitive for certain jobs. They may spend several hours on sometimes unreliable public transportation and spend a huge chunk of their meager daily wages simply to get to and from work or on the job hunt.
If you see some brother or sister in need and have the means to do something about it but turn a cold shoulder and do nothing, what happens to God’s love? It disappears. And you made it disappear. 1 John 3:17, The Message
What can you do for those in need with the means that you have?