Kenyan McDuffie (D-Ward 5) moved to restore stronger language to the “ban the box” bill. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

Updated 4 p.m. with Mendelson comment

After years of abortive efforts, the D.C. Council voted Tuesday to give job applicants with criminal records new protections against discrimination from potential employers.

On a 12-to-1 vote, lawmakers gave initial approval to the Fair Criminal Record Screening Act — known to its proponents as “ban the box” — which restricts when employers can check a job applicant’s criminal background. Proponents have called the bill a necessary step to combat high unemployment and lower recidivism among convicts who have served their sentences and returned to their communities, one that has been successfully embraced many in other jurisdictions. But previous attempts to help those “returning citizens” have been derailed after employers objected to measures they considered overbroad and a potential magnet for lawsuits.

The new bill, introduced by Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), does not give aggrieved job applicants the right to sue employers who refused to hire them, nor does it include ex-offenders as a protected class under the District’s human rights law. But it does place new curbs on when during the hiring process an employer can check an applicant’s criminal background, thus banning the practice of screening applicants based on their criminal records.

Although Wells’s original bill said employers could check criminal records after an initial job offer was extended, the bill was watered down in committee to allow a background check after a first interview. On Tuesday, however, Kenyan McDuffie (D-Ward 5) moved successfully to have the old language restored. McDuffie’s amendment also included new language saying an employer could only withdraw a job offer for a “legitimate business reason” and must, upon the spurned applicant’s request, explain the withdrawal in writing.

That new language generated some objections from McDuffie’s colleagues, some of whom sought to break in the amendment into discrete pieces — particularly over issues with the “legitimate business reason” language, which some argued was dangerously vague. Several members said they would seek further changes before a second and final vote on July 14 to “tighten” the amendment, making it clearer what are acceptable and unacceptable reasons for withdrawing a job offer following a criminal background check.

Only Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) voted against the bill Tuesday. In an interview, Mendelson said he supports the “basic thrust” of the legislation but thinks McDuffie’s amendment is “troublesome,” giving ex-offenders greater rights in the hiring process than other citizens. “This goes way beyond ‘ban the box’ and into telling businesses how to hire,” he said. “How much do we want to regulate how a business wants to hire somebody?”

Wells said he was pleased a “ban the box” bill finally made it through the council, and while he said he welcomed tweaks before the final vote, he made clear there is no reason for further dawdling: “I will not support any effort that delays a vote on this bill,” he said. “We need to do this before recess. We need to get it done.”