Man Fired After Employer Learns of Trespassing Misdemeanor 40 Years Ago

Donel Fuller is just one out of potentially millions discriminated against because of a criminal history. But the Ban the Box campaign is changing that—with a huge success this week.

Earlier this year, when Donel Fuller applied for janitorial work in San Francisco, he believed he had correctly completed the application, especially the questions about his criminal history. He listed his prior convictions and was soon hired. But six weeks later, they fired him when a background check revealed that he had a trespassing misdemeanor back in 1974.

“I didn’t even remember that,” he said. It was in ’74, 40 years ago. I put down the ones I did remember.”

Then Fuller’s plight got worse. His search for work included checking off the criminal history box, which is listed on millions of job and housing applications nationwide. He said he “felt miserable.”

“People will never get a job if they’re looking for stuff way back,” he said, saying his decades-old mistake is keeping him from getting hired today.

But soon, Fuller’s history may not hinder him. San Francisco is on its way to banning the criminal history box on all applications for private employment and affordable housing. This past Tuesday, the city’s Board of Supervisors unanimously passed the legislation, dubbed the Fair Chance Ordinance. It faces one more procedural vote before it moves to the office of the mayor, who said he would sign the bill.

San Francisco joins several other cities, such as Philadelphia and Seattle, in banning private employers from asking about criminal history on applications. Like most of the more than 50 cities and 10 states with so-called Ban the Box laws, San Francisco has laws barring the question on public city jobs.

The latest legislation, however, focuses on the private sector. It does not ban employers from eventually doing a criminal history check, but they must wait until after the first interview or a conditional offer of employment.

The point is to “delay exposure of information until after someone has had a face-to-face meeting to evaluate a person as a full human being—not based on their paper record,” said Jesse Stout, policy director at Legal Services for Prisoners with Children (LSPC), which came up with the concept for the Ban the Box campaign.

San Francisco’s Ban the Box bill also prohibits the consideration of offenses older than seven years, as well as expunged convictions or arrests that didn’t lead to a conviction. It excludes certain occupations, such as childcare or law enforcement.

While employers and housing providers aren’t required to explain their reasons for not hiring or contracting with applicants, it is hard to accurately calculate the impact the criminal history question has on employment and housing. According to LSPC, it has the potential to impact one in four Americans, the number of people with conviction histories.

Removing this barrier could have a big impact. When TakeAction Minnesota, a statewide economic and racial justice network, began pressuring Target, one of the state’s largest employers, to ban the box, the corporation initially refused. It responded by stating that it already uses fair-hiring practices. So organizers had 150 people apply to Target— a majority of them people of color, and all of them with criminal records. According to Justin Terrell of TakeAction Minnesota, only one person out of the 150 was offered a job. The job was rescinded once the corporation found the applicant’s expunged criminal record.

The organizers took 10 applicants and filed complaints to the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Target then began working with TakeAction Minnesota and eventually was key in influencing the state’s business community on the issue. Minnesota became the third state, following Hawaii and Massachusetts, to ban the box for private employers at the beginning of this year. Target also decided to ban the box on all of its applications nationwide.

The Ban the Box campaign is relatively new. It started in 2004 and quickly passed its first resolution in San Francisco in 2005 to ban the box on city job applications. From there, Stout says they have continued pressure throughout the Bay Area and California while keeping in touch with other organizers as Ban the Box campaigns spread across the country.

“I think it’s been so successful because people innately know and understand that formerly incarcerated people are people, too, and do deserve the same equal human rights,” Stout said. “Employment is essentially a human right under capitalism, and if you’re going to need to have a job and feed yourself and your family and have a place to live, then everyone—regardless of whether they’ve been to prison or jail — does deserve the equal chance to apply for a job and have the opportunity to interview for a job. And I think we’ve really struck the balance that strikes people as fair by insisting on removing the question on the initial application, just to give someone the same chance to get an interview.”

In San Francisco, the issue has seen bipartisan support, Stout said, citing the Coalition on Homelessness on the left, to the city’s Chamber of Commerce on the right.

In addition to working with cities and states to implement ban-the-box laws, organizers have worked with jurisdictions to get public contractors to ban the box for private contractors. They have encouraged non-profits to take the Fair Chance Pledge, which has had dozens of groups sign on after it launched less than a year ago.

At the federal level, in 2012 the EEOC strengthened its guidelines and policies regarding how employers handle applicants’ criminal histories. While a federal ban-the-box law may one day be possible, the push currently remains within cities and states, which are generally responsible for employment laws.

Stout said many people are realizing why the legislation makes sense.

“It’s better for our economy, insofar as we have fewer people unemployed, who consume fewer public resources and are able to generate more overall economic activity,” he said. “And it’s also better for public safety as people who obtain employment after jail or prison are less likely to return to jail or prison for lack of resources.”

Importantly, banning the box also keeps prior offenders from returning to jail.

“People who get out of jail or prison and seek to reintegrate into our society who are prevented by public policy from interviewing for jobs or even apartments, are much less likely to integrate into society successfully,” Stout said. “And putting up those sorts of barriers shuts people out and creates unnecessary stigma that ostracizes people reentering.”

Ban the Box organizers in San Francisco expect to soon start work on implementing the ordinance and holding public education events with formerly incarcerated people and other job seekers. Next up for LSPC will be further expanding the legislation to include all housing in the city, including those fully owned by private landlords (as opposed to subsidized housing), as well as a continued expansion across the state and country. 

Alyssa Figueroa is an associate editor at AlterNet. 

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