City Council changes the rules on employee background checks

Council forbids initial check of criminal history, requires businesses explain refusals to hire ex-cons
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City Councilman Bruce Harrell, during an interview with Crosscut writers and editors

Council forbids initial check of criminal history, requires businesses explain refusals to hire ex-cons

"We are a felon-free and drug-free company."

While that phrase was one of the more explicit to turn up recently in the jobs section of a Seattle website's help-wanted ads, hundreds of others sent the same message: If you've got a criminal record, don't bother applying.

Starting later this year, sending that message will be illegal in Seattle. The city council unanimously voted Monday to restrict when businesses can turn down job applicants just because they have a criminal record.

Aimed at helping people back into the job market after being arrested or convicted of a crime, the legislation lays out requirements for when employers can ask about an applicant's record and what they can do about it. After hearing lengthy testimony, the council voted on the legislation, proposed by councilman and mayoral candidate Bruce Harrell.

The purpose of the legislation, Harrell said before the meeting, is to reduce recidivism by helping ex-cons find a way to survive outside prison walls without resorting to the same crimes that got them locked up in the first place.

"It has do to with helping people re-enter society," Harrell said.

Two elements of the ordinance are central: Employers can't ask about an employee's criminal record on initial application forms, and the employers planning to turn down applicants on the basis of a prior conviction will have to give them two days to explain their records.

Workers' and minority advocates at the meeting repeatedly urged council members to "ban the box" — referring to boxes on job applications that would-be workers have to check if they have ever been arrested or convicted of a crime. Checking the box, advocates said, often cripples an applicant's chances before his or her resume is even reviewed, effectively dooming ex-cons to unemployment.

The legislation also includes a requirement that businesses be able to point to "a legitimate business reason" for not hiring a qualified employee who happened to have a criminal record. Under the requirement, business owners would need a good-faith belief that an applicant's background might make him or her unfit for the position.

Earlier versions of the bill had included a stricter standard: that employers be able to point to a plausible link between the type of crime a person had committed and the job they were applying for.

When Harrell changed the standard, some claimed the legislation was being watered down, and that the good-faith rule would effectively act as a loophole for businesses to get around hiring ex-prisoners.

Those allegations were notably absent from Monday's meeting. Instead, advocates for both the minority community and Seattle businesses present at the meeting were generally supportive of the bill, with the few objections that did arise focusing on a separate amendment to it.

The amendment, from councilwoman Sally Bagshaw, pointed to the delicate balancing act evidently behind the bill. In it, Bagshaw proposed restricting the ability of city officials to force business owners to pay legal fees when applicants are found to have been wronged by the business. After the amendment was read, however, Harrell asked Bagshaw to withdraw it, even though he acknowledged he had asked for it originally.

Calling it "a miscommunication," Harrell said it was a "concession that the business community wanted," which he had intended to communicate to Bagshaw, but not to endorse.

After Harrell's statement, Bagshaw withdrew her amendment.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Tom James

Tom James

Tom James is a feature writer and photographer from Kingston, Washington, who has reported from Seattle, Olympia, Guatemala, Jordan, and the Olympic Peninsula on topics ranging from drug use in the Navy to the silent epidemic of PTSD among refugees and what happens when fathers are deported. You can find his contact information at