The County Executive’s Corner: A Real Solution to “Ban the Box”

Ed DayBy Rockland County Executive Ed Day

Advocates of the nationwide “ban the box” movement have approached the county with their policy to make people with criminal histories more employable. They contend that people with criminal histories that would not preclude employment should be fairly treated and that employed people, with steady incomes, are less likely to commit crimes in the future and will help to grow the economy.

Generally, the ban the box policy advocates ask employers not to inquire about criminal records on the initial job application or interview. In that way, they believe that well qualified candidates will have a chance to exhibit their skill sets without being immediately eliminated from consideration.

Nothing in the proposal prevents an employer from discussing criminal history or doing a background check before actually hiring the job candidate. It is only intended to get employers more invested in qualified candidates who might otherwise be rejected off-hand for a youthful indiscretion or minor violation of the law.

The administration has met with the “ban the box” advocates. I have every intention of working with them. My concern is that everyone be protected. When I am satisfied that a system has been designed that will help people who have criminal convictions get jobs but also provides adequate safeguards for employers in county, town and village governments as well as school districts, I will propose that system to “ban the box.”

The Legislature has already proposed a resolution for this purpose. However, that resolution is flawed.

On the County Legislature’s agenda for August 6, 2014, was a resolution drafted by the Legislature titled “Rockland County Procedures on Addressing Criminal Convictions in Hiring.” Both I and my staff reached out to the Legislative sponsors of this resolution, explaining our concerns. Based upon our discussions, the Legislature agreed to pull this resolution from that night’s agenda. I sincerely appreciate the Legislature’s cooperation on this decision.

Since that day, members of my executive staff and department heads have met with legislative counsel and next week members of my executive staff, department heads, ban the box advocates and the legislative sponsors will again meet to work on these policy issues. We look forward to the meeting.

I asked that the Legislature’s proposed resolution be pulled from the agenda for several reasons:

First, from January 1, 2013 to August 5, 2014, our County Personnel Department processed 7,662 applications to be qualified for jobs in county and local governments as well as school districts. During this period, 208 applicants self- identified as having been convicted of a crime. Of those, only three were disqualified from employment, because their convictions were job-related, serious or recent.

Under the Legislature’s resolution, the towns, villages and school districts may actually be less likely to hire any of the 205 people with criminal records. Right now, in Rockland County, our robust hiring processes are carefully designed to catch red flags. We already meet or exceed our obligation under law. In fact, our existing hiring policies are stronger than those offered as part of the Legislature’s proposed resolution.

If the Legislature’s version of “ban the box” passes, any interview by a town, village or school district would have to bring up the job seeker’s past criminal history since the they will not be able to rely on the County Personnel Department’s pre-qualification process. In such a case, the appointing or hiring authority there will have to ask about it themselves, exposing the job seekers who do have a criminal history to unnecessary delay in hiring or even being passed over while a background check is being conducted, a process that can take over a month. The applicant with no history to report will not face the delay or the risk of being passed over due to delay.

Second, the Legislature’s “ban the box” resolution would bar the county from contracting with any vendor, from small, local businesses to large, national corporations who do not also follow the “ban the box” policy. It would also require those companies to accept training from county personnel (presumably at the county’s own cost) to instruct them on the laws preventing discrimination against those with criminal records, even if they already have that training.

The bar to contracting could leave us without the services and products of IBM, Oracle, KPMG, Hewlett-Packard, Verizon or AT&T, among others, unless they chose to adopt “ban the box” policies and agreed to accept our personnel into their human resources departments to train them in their own jobs.

The County of Rockland already faces challenges in securing vendors and nonprofits to bid on County contracts due to a thick layer of “red tape” mandated by state and local laws. The legislature’s “ban the box” resolution would make the challenges even greater.

It is hard to believe that the County of Rockland, by itself, could force major companies who provide unique or economically priced services to change their hiring practices at locations in other states or countries and for hiring hundreds or thousands of employees who are wholly unrelated to providing products or services for Rockland County. This would force the County to use second-best or more expensive services. If we sacrifice the use of, for example, Verizon or AT&T telephone service, how would the county communicate, using tin cans and string?

Lastly, the Legislature’s resolution would require the county to avoid questions about criminal background on County license applications, for example, licenses for the contractors who work in your home. The resolution does not however say when the question may be brought up.

Right now an applicant for a license with an accompanying test, fills out the application, pays a fee and, in some cases, takes a test. Under the resolution, a third step will be necessary where some kind of “second interview” would take place to assess criminal background. At this time, there is no such second interview. It would have to be inserted into the process at an unnecessary additional cost to the county to interview all of the applicants. It would also delay the process.

If this step is before the test, it will only delay the test for the time it takes to wait on an appointment for and to conduct the interview. If it is after the test, it will cause those who take the test to pay for testing, even if they can not qualify for the license due to an adverse history. Neither of these procedures are fair, economical or efficient. If it is a license with no accompanying test, then why would the county even want or need to wait on a “second interview?”

To move this issue forward, I would like to develop a solution where the county’s director of Community Relations, the county’s commissioner of Human Rights and the “ban the box” advocates can work together to reach out to the employers in the county to explain the benefits of “ban the box” and to dispel any prejudices or myths surrounding the hiring of people simply because they have been involved in the criminal justice system. This program will have far reaching benefits to all of Rockland County.