Ex-offenders hope Philadelphia passes 'ban the box' bill this week

Steve Gordon of Southampton hasn't secured a job since his release from prison despite decades of work experience.
Steve Gordon of Southampton hasn't secured a job since his release from prison despite decades of work experience.
Posted: March 28, 2011

Sometimes the facts are easy:

A 39-year-old mother of four raising her family on welfare and food stamps finds a check next to a Dumpster. Her monthly welfare payment is days away, and there is no food in the house. She signs it, committing fraud.

"I went home and told my kids, 'God sent me a piece of paper that says we're going to eat tonight.' "

That happened to Evelyn Houser, now 70, of North Philadelphia in 1981. In 2010, that conviction - her only brush with the law - meant she wasn't considered for a temporary U.S. Census job.

"It's like a slap in the face," she said.

Sometimes, though, the facts are hard:

Distraught over his dissolving marriage, a man flips out when his estranged wife visits. He ties her up, beats her, and tries to rape her before slashing himself with a knife. That was in 2000, a repeat of a less serious offense in 1972.

In May 2010, Steven Gordon, now 64, was released from prison, and no one will hire him despite decades of experience in food service that includes managing cafeterias providing hundreds of meals a day.

"I'm living with my parents," said Gordon, of Southampton, Bucks County. "If it weren't for them, I'd probably be living in a refrigerator box under a bridge somewhere.

"I put myself in this position. I recognize that. But I have the skills. I know how to do things, but I can't get my foot in the door."

The foot in the door is what City Council is hoping to accomplish Thursday, when it will likely pass a "ban the box" ordinance.

The box is the one on applications that candidates check when asked about arrests or convictions. The box would have to disappear, whether on paper or online.

Also, most employers in the city would no longer be able to ask applicants about their criminal backgrounds until after the first interview. After that, employers could run any checks and ask any criminal history questions they wished.

If Council passes the ordinance, Philadelphia will join many other cities - including Boston, Chicago, and New Haven, Conn. - with similar laws.

Philadelphia's proposed ordinance "doesn't force employers to hire to anyone," said William Nesheiwat, director of legislation for Councilwoman Donna Reed Miller, a Democrat, the sponsor.

"It requires the employer to give candidates the opportunity to be judged strictly on their merits during the application and the first interview, because everyone understands the value of a first impression," he said. "Our goal is to create something that helps the individual with a record but does not hurt businesses and their clients."

Groups such as Community Legal Services and the National Employment Law Project favor the measure. The Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce opposes it.

"Our members remain concerned that the legislation still poses significant challenges for employers," chamber vice president Joseph W. Mahoney Jr. wrote in a letter to Miller. "The bill presents liability problems for potential employers who may become targets for antidiscrimination litigation."

Michael Aitken, director of governmental affairs for the Society for Human Resource Management, the nation's largest professional HR group, said employers should have the right to do criminal checks. But, he said, most wait until later in the hiring process because those checks are expensive.

Philadelphia's proposal is broader than those in other cities because it is the only one that would apply to most private employers. Elsewhere, the laws apply primarily to city employees, and sometimes to companies that do business with the city.

But some cities provide more protections to ex-offenders.

Boston sifted through its jobs to determine which ones required background checks. It determined that criminal checks would be necessary for government jobs involving money-handling or caring for the young, but not for collecting trash.

The applicant's criminal history is usually not checked until after a conditional offer, and if the applicant is turned down due to the record, there is an opportunity for appeal.

"Where we need a criminal-background check, we're going to run that background check," said Boston's assistant director of human resources, William Kessler. "Then we look at the nature of conviction, how old the conviction is, any evidence of rehabilitation, and we'll make a determination."

Pennsylvania already has a law, rarely enforced, requiring employers to consider only relevant convictions when hiring. New Jersey is considering ban-the-box legislation.

Meanwhile, Rob Hill, 30, of Philadelphia, hopes the city's proposal passes. He grew up in a chaotic home with a dying mother and two younger siblings. As a teen, he became addicted to drugs and then sold them, winding up in jail. "I remember feeling a sense of accomplishment that I could give my mom money when she needed it."

Hill was released in 2006. Now he's a college graduate with a degree in sports management who can't get a job.

"No one is giving me a chance," he said.

Contact staff writer Jane M. Von Bergen at 215-854-2769 or jvonbergen@phillynews.com.

To learn more about this issue, read Von Bergen's "Jobbing" blog: www.philly.com/jobbing


comments powered by Disqus