OLYMPIA — A bill prohibiting the criminal history question on job applications passed the Washington state House of Representatives Feb. 7 on a 52-46 vote. HB 1298 was passed with votes along party lines with Republicans largely against it.
“I speak to you today with great gravity and heaviness of heart,” Kitsap County citizen Deighton Boyce said as he began his emotional testimony to lawmakers during the bill’s first hearing last year.
He told a story about growing up in poverty, being exposed to violence at a young age and following in his father’s footsteps as a drug dealer. Since then he has shed his past and is raising a son with his wife. Both of them volunteer for social work in their community. But, he told lawmakers, his record keeps him from getting steady employment.
“I believe that once a person serves their time and pays their debt to society, they should be allowed the same rights and access to opportunities of success as the rest of society,” Boyce said.
HB 1298 — also called the ‘Ban the Box bill’ or the ‘Fair Chance Act’ — prohibits employers from inquiring about an applicant’s criminal history until after the employer has determined the applicant meets the minimum requirements for the job. This includes the question about criminal history that applicants can check in a box on job applications.
“This bill is about jobs and opportunity,” the bill’s prime sponsor, state Rep. Lillian Ortiz-Self, D-Mukilteo, said during floor debate on Wednesday.
“It’s been said that America is the land of second chances but unfortunately for many people with a criminal record, that second chance doesn’t exist.”
State Rep. Morgan Irwin, R-Enumclaw, said he supports the bill’s overall goals, but there needs to be a middle ground. He pointed out that the House is considering HB 2208, which expands criminal background check requirements for current and potential state employees and contractors.
“Here we are allowing the state to expand background checks but we’re telling private employers that they will have no such ability to do that,” Irwin said.
However, under HB 1298, employers still have the right to turn down an applicant upon receiving their criminal history after an interview. The bill also includes exemptions for employers who hire people to work with children or vulnerable adults and employers who are required to run background checks by state or federal laws. The latter includes state government jobs, law enforcement and criminal justice agencies.
State Rep. Michelle Caldier, R-Port Orchard, said the bill doesn’t go far enough to protect vulnerable populations.
Bob Cooper, speaking for the Washington Defender Association and Washington Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers at the bill’s hearing a year ago, said the current criminal record box on applications lumps together someone who committed a crime of vandalism with a violent offender.
At the floor debate on Wednesday, Irwin said that is precisely the problem. Lumping offenders into a single category with no distinction of the severity of the crime can be harmful, he said, adding that there should be a way to distinguish felonies from misdemeanors. But eliminating the box entirely is not the right answer, Cooper said.
Nick Federici, a lobbyist for Pioneer Human Services, said at the bill’s 2017 hearing that banning the criminal records question would help people get jobs which in turn greatly reduces recidivism.
“It’s next to impossible to get your life back on track if you can’t get decent work,” he said.
According to the National Employment Law Project, 30 states ban including the box on criminal history on applications. Local cities and certain companies also ban the box on their own.
Eric Schallon, the forestry operations manager at Green Diamond Resources, said the ban on criminal history disclosure in an application is working for his company with no increased crime within the workplace. He also said that as a conservative, he doesn’t want to keep paying for people to stay in prison, but endorsed for people to have an opportunity upon re-entry to pull their own weight and not rely on state resources.
If the bill passes, an employer who violates the provision would get a warning and an offer for assistance in implementing the new policy. The company could face a fine up to $750 for a second violation and up to $1,000 for a third.