Twice since late 2021, a hospitality business in Warren County has been sued in state court by a local job applicant claiming he wasn’t hired due to his criminal record.
In the first case, his contention that a question on the application form compelled him to release information about sealed misdemeanor offenses was dismissed by a judge who found no such obligation.
In the second, filed last month and not decided yet, the man took aim at language in a help-wanted ad seeking applicants with a clean driving record “and no criminal background.” He applied anyway, listing two convictions.
A zealot? Perhaps. In a ruling on a different lawsuit, this time in federal court, the man is said to describe himself as an ex-offender who utilizes state laws “against employers who advertise conviction bars,” deeming them discriminatory and against public policy.
And, indeed, they generally are.
While prospective employers can ask about unsealed misdemeanor and felony convictions, they cannot ask about arrests that did not result in a conviction, according to a state Department of Labor job-seeking guide for ex-offenders.
Employers also cannot refuse to hire ex-offenders unless the felony or misdemeanor conviction is related to the position they’re seeking – someone convicted of fraud, for instance, can legally be passed over for a job as an accountant.
Failure to employ ex-offenders looking for work costs the country $78 billion to $87 billion annually in lost gross domestic product, according to one progressive think tank. For the formerly incarcerated, lifetime earnings are reduced, translating into nearly $2 billion lost annually in New York, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.
While it’s not officially tracked by the government, the unemployment rate nationally for ex-offenders is estimated at 27%.
Brennan is among a number of public policy groups, labor unions, businesses, community advocates and others joined in a coalition working on Clean Slate NY, an attempt to pass legislation to automatically seal the criminal records of eligible ex-offenders, replacing a current system described as burdensome under which an application for relief is required.
The legislation passed the state Senate in 2022 but stalled in the Assembly before lawmakers adjourned last summer. A renewed push for passage in the new legislative session that just started includes an “advocacy day” Jan. 17 in Albany organized by the coalition.
The Business Council of New York State, also listed as a coalition member, sees automatic sealing as a tool to eliminate barriers for ex-offenders to reenter the workforce and help grow the state’s economy.
“Inclusive hiring of individuals with a criminal record is a powerful way to break the cycles of poverty and incarceration,” the group says in a fact sheet on so-called second-chance hiring. “…Stronger communities can create stronger local economies, enhancing the business climate for all companies.”
Marlene Kennedy is a freelance columnist. Opinions expressed in her column are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. Reach her at [email protected].