A bill aimed at preventing ex-felons from having the employment door slammed in their faces was passed Saturday on a bipartisan vote in the Minnesota Senate.
On a 44-16 vote, the Senate said private employers should not ask about job applicants' criminal histories until the applicant is granted an interview or made a conditional job offer. The bill is sometimes called "ban the box" because it eliminates the criminal-history box on most applications. It's designed to give those who have rebuilt their lives a chance to explain themselves and perhaps have a better chance of getting a job.
"Those who have offended will have a greater opportunity to become responsible and taxpaying community members," said the sponsor, Sen. Bobby Joe Champion, DFL-Minneapolis.
The bill essentially extends to private employers the law that now applies to public employers. It would not require private employers to hire anyone, but it would prevent them from inquiring into the criminal record or criminal history of job applicants until the applicant has advanced passed the initial application stage.
Champion said with as many as one in five Minnesotans having some kind of criminal record, a huge pool of applicants is being passed over early in the application process. "Many Minnesotans are turned away from employment for which they are qualified" based on checking the criminal history box on the application, he said.
Champion said the bill doesn't block employers who are prohibited by law from hiring certain offenders — such as nursing homes and hospitals — from continuing to state that on job applications. He also accepted an amendment clarifying that the bill doesn't give rejected applicants a cause of action to sue the company that rejected them.
Sen. Dan Hall, R-Burnsville, questioned whether employers shouldn't be able to quickly weed out offenders who were just released, particularly for serious offenses. "If they come out of prison the day before, are you saying, employers shouldn't know before the interview?" he asked Champion, mentioning hate crimes and terrorism as possible offenses that employers should immediately know about.
"I think a person who has a past, that information should be provided at a certain time," Champion responded, saying that if someone "shows the qualifications and skills," a background check can be conducted at the point of the job interview. He added, "There's nothing that says an employer is bound to hire anyone that they don't quite feel comfortable with."
Hall tried to amend the bill so ex-felons would have to wait 10 years after leaving prison before the "ban the box" law would apply to them. The amendment failed.
Sen. Julianne Ortman, R-Chanhassen, said the bill was a "feel-good" measure that would have no practical effect. She said the bill would "create a whole new government program to check up on Minnesota businesses."
Sen Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, responded that many ex-felons are eliminated by an automated process, and the bill will let "someone get their foot in the door."
Sen. Jeff Hayden, DFL-Minneapolis, said his father put his life back together after troubles with drugs and alcohol but told his son recently that he's not sure whether it would be possible under stricter laws now in effect. And some supporters, including GOP members, said Champion should go further and work at expunging criminal records after time has elapsed.
Champion said his bill has an equally good chance of bipartisan passage in the House.