March 12, 2014. Courier-Journal.
It’s been more than a decade since Adam Carter did time in prison for dealing cocaine — but when it comes to trying to get a job interview, it might as well have been yesterday, he says.
Application after application asks the same question: “Have you ever been charged or convicted of a felony or a misdemeanor?” And as soon as he answered “yes,” it seemed employers were no longer interested.
“It really does amaze me that I made a mistake 14, 15 years ago, but people are still holding that mistake against me,” said Carter, who works as an NCAA baseball umpire but ran into difficulties finding work after being laid off from a previous job.
It’s why Carter hopes the Louisville Metro Council will pass an ordinance tonight that would prohibit city government and city vendors from including a question about criminal convictions on job applications. Supporters say roughly 160,000 Jefferson County adults have criminal records and 40 percent are minorities, resulting in far too many residents being shut out of jobs.
The movement has been dubbed “ban the box” for the check-off box many applications contain. It would not apply to private employers who are not doing business with the city or to other non-city governments within Jefferson County.
“It was really difficult,” Carter said. “I knew a lot of the jobs I was qualified for. I think because I had to check that box that they prejudged me.”
The city and vendors would still be allowed to ask about criminal convictions and conduct background checks. But by striking the question from applications, job seekers would get a chance to explain their situation, supporters say.
Mayor Greg Fischer, a Democrat, and some Republican members of the council support banning the box from city government job applications — they say the city already has that policy — but they oppose extending the ban to vendors doing business with city government.
“When government starts telling you what to put on your applications — what’s next?” asked Councilman Kelly Downard, R-16th District.
Chris Poynter, a spokesman for Fischer, said city government has 26,000 vendors from small businesses to large companies.
“Making the vendors do it is a completely different level that would be very difficult to implement, and we will oppose that,” Poynter said. He said Fischer would consider vetoing the ordinance.
Poynter said representatives of the administration met with Metro Council members this week and offered amendments dealing with exemptions for certain vendors that, if passed, would satisfy the mayor’s office.
For years, city government has operated without the question on job applications and the current proposal would place that into law, preventing any future administration from reinstating it.
Councilman Ken Fleming, R-7th District, believes the effort is unnecessary because the question is no longer asked on city government applications. He said he will formally request information about the financial impact on government and businesses.
Fleming said administration officials have indicated that implementing and maintaining the process would require additional government employees and possibly an investigator.
Carter and those supporting the change argue that the question hurts the economy by limiting the ability of some qualified workers to support themselves and their families.
“I believe that if you’re looking to move our economy forward and making sure that everyone that is able to be gainfully employed has an opportunity to do so — that a measure like this opens up the marketplace for folks like that,” said Councilman David Tandy, a 4th District Democrat and one of eight sponsors of the legislation.
Citizens of Louisville Organized and United Together, a grassroots coalition of churches and religious organizations, is leading the fight for the ban and will hold a rally at city hall at 5 p.m. today.
The Rev. Larry Sykes of Greater Good Hope Baptist Church, co-chair of CLOUT’s Jobs for Ex-Offenders Issue Committee, said disallowing the box won’t not stop an employer from conducting a background check, but he said those cost money and are often late in the hiring process — after an applicant is in the door.
“People who get a chance at interviewing are more likely to be hired than someone who has been weeded out because of a criminal conviction in their past,” he said.
Sykes said including only city government would affect a small number of people — about 1,000 hires a year — but adding vendors would be a tremendous help to people in the community and their families.
He also argues that giving more opportunities to ex-offenders would reduce recidivism — and a resulting drop in spending for courts and corrections.
Sykes said there is not a lot of council Republican support for the ordinance, but CLOUT organizers pointed to the recent passage of a similar ordinance in Indianapolis with bipartisan support.
The City-County Council there passed a measure 26-2 prohibiting the city, vendors and some companies that receive city benefits from asking potential employees about convictions on the application or in the first interview.
Carter, who was convicted in 1998 and served time from 2000-03, had a good support system and worked as a general manager and partner in a fast-food franchise until it was sold in 2011 and then worked in accounting and business administration with a local company until it downsized.
“That is when I really began to experience how hard it was as a convicted felon to get a job,” Carter said. “Out of incarceration, I had an opportunity. I had never had to experience checking that box.”
But, once he did, Carter said he felt there were jobs he was qualified for but not considered because of his conviction. He said he feels good about his chances if he can get an interview and tell his story.
“Everybody has made a mistake in the past,” he said. “I think the difference is some of us were caught and some of us were not caught.”