Plenty of people get headaches looking for work.
But Vivian Nixon’s job hunting frustrations were particularly painful. It’s a set of experiences that federal job applicants would escape under a directive from President Obama and bi-partisan legislation Congress is considering.
Nixon was released in 2001 from Albion Correctional Facility in New York, following convictions for falsifying documents and grand larceny. She often went on three job interviews a week for 14 months, she recalled, before finally getting hired at St. Francis Hospital in Roslyn, N.Y.
“Some people just out right asked me about my felony conviction and never asked another question about my qualifications for the job,” she said. “Of course I never heard from them again. But I also experienced some really embarrassing moments where I was asked inappropriate questions such as ‘what was prison like, what did you do in prison, were you in prison with dangerous people, is prison like the TV show Lock Up or is it like Oz?’ One interviewer even went and grabbed some of her colleagues to come in and hear my personal story because she was so enthralled that she met someone who ‘actually went to prison.’ It was humiliating, it was embarrassing.”
Obama’s directive would formalize a practice — delaying questions about an applicant’s criminal history until later in the hiring process — that many federal agencies already follow. A Capitol Hill coalition, including members of Congress from opposite ends of the political spectrum, would go even farther. Their bill also would apply to federal contractors.
“The federal government, I believe, should not use criminal history to screen out applicants before we even look at their qualifications,” Obama said. “We can’t dismiss people out of hand simply because of a mistake that they made in the past.”
That’s what happened to Nixon. Now she is a college graduate and executive director of College and Community Fellowship, a New York City organization that works with women with criminal pasts.
Like other advocates, Nixon praises Obama for this “major milestone,” even as she urges him to issue “a strong executive order covering federal contractors.”
“It’s not at all clear that Congress will ultimately enact a strong ban-the-box bill,” she said.
Ban the box refers to the box on some applications that require job candidates to indicate if they have arrest or conviction records. More generally, it calls for employers to delay consideration of criminal records until later in the hiring process.
While it’s not known when or how forcefully Congress will act, the ban-the-box congressional coalition gives the Fair Chance Act a good running start. Reps. Elijah Cummings, a Maryland Democrat, and Darrell Issa, a California Republican, are a continent apart geographically and politically. But they hosted a congressional briefing Thursday to generate support for the bill they introduced.
The Fair Chance Act would prohibit all federal government branches from asking applicants for criminal history information until the conditional job offer stage. The same would apply to companies hiring for federal contracts. Similar legislation has been introduced by Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), also political opposites, in the Senate, where the bill was quickly and unanimously approved by the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
There would be exceptions for certain positions, including those in law enforcement and national security.
Though there is much activity now in Washington surrounding ban-the-box proposals, which fit nicely with the growing movement toward criminal justice reform, the federal government is playing catch-up with many state and local governments and some large companies.
“Momentum for the policy has grown exponentially, particularly in recent years,” Michelle Natividad Rodriguez and Nayantara Mehta wrote in an article for the National Employment Law Project. They said more than 100 cities and counties have banned the box, as have 19 states.
Attitudes are changing. Look at the 2010 comments of Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah). Then, he defended his bill prohibiting the Census Bureau from hiring former felons as census takers, saying: “I don’t want a convicted felon going to knock on Grandma’s door.” His office did not respond to repeated requests for comment Thursday.
That kind of discrimination potentially affects “the 65 million Americans in this country who have a criminal record on file,” said Glenn E. Martin, founder and president of JustLeadershipUSA, an organization that works to cut the prison population.
“With the disproportionate impact of the criminal justice system on people of color,” he added, “criminal record based discrimination serves as a surrogate for race based discrimination.”
Obama made it clear that criminal records should be considered, just not at the beginning of the application process.
“It is relevant to find out whether somebody has a criminal record. We’re not suggesting ignore it,” he said. “What we are suggesting is, when it comes to the application, give folks a chance to get through the door.”