Removing Barriers to Jobs for All

David R. Jones, The Urban Agenda

Chances are probably good you know someone like Victor Fisher.

The 45-year old Brooklyn man has a criminal record -- a similarity he shares with 70 million other Americans. In September he was released from jail after completing a one-year sentence for cashing bogus checks.  He knew then, and says now that this was not the right way to make ends meet.  He is determined and eager to work.  But he is facing incredible barriers.

When Mr. Fisher talks about some of the decisions he made as a young man, there is regret in his voice. From dropping out of high school, to “hustling” on the streets to make a fast dollar, to choosing older adults with prison time on their resumes as role models, there is the clear sense of opportunities missed. Unlike many of the friends he grew up with in East New York, Mr. Fisher and his younger sisters were raised in a two-parent household. Both his parents worked and set a good example. His sisters both graduated from college and have successful careers. Yet, he chose a different path.

“I wanted to prove that I was as hard as anyone else. I was a follower instead of a leader, not seeing the big picture, and not knowing that these charges against me would stick with me for the rest of my life,” he said.

Since his release, Mr. Fisher has obtained his food safety certification from the state. He also acquired three college credits in business administration through Manhattan Community College and completed a custodial maintenance training program during his incarceration. He has applied for a number of jobs, including several in the food service industry.  In most cases, his quest for a job gets no further than the question “have you ever been convicted of a crime”?  Checking the box “yes” all but guarantees he is passed over, even though New York law currently prohibits denying people work just because they have a record. 

 But there may be good news for Mr. Fisher, and others like him, who after paying their debts to society are looking for the opportunity to support themselves and their families, and to become contributing members of society.

NYC FAIR CHANCE ACT

The New York City Council is poised to make New York the latest  to enact a law requiring employers, public and private, to first make a conditional job offer before asking a job applicant about his conviction history or conducting a background check inquiry.

At yesterday’s public hearing on The Fair Chance Act, members of the Council’s Civil Rights Committee voted to move the bill and thereby set the stage for a full Council vote by the end of this year or early 2015. The bill, which has widespread support and is backed by 36 Council sponsors, will ensure that all public and private sector employers consider job applicants based on their skills, experience and qualifications before determining whether their conviction history is relevant.

We owe them, and ourselves, no less than this.  The Fair Chance Act does not force employers to hire people with criminal records or prevent them from running criminal background checks.   Instead, the law creates an even playing field for all job seekers, and removes barriers to employment for people who are qualified to work. It will also serve to deter those businesses that currently circumvent existing state law prohibiting employment discrimination based on a person’s criminal record.

EMPLOYMENT LOWERS RECIDIVISM

About 27,000 people are released from New York’s jails and prisons every year. They become part of the roughly five million New Yorkers with a criminal record, disproportionately people of color. The systematic exclusion of these individuals from employment increases poverty and recidivism and disproportionately harms communities of color, and all but ensures that our society will continue to punish them long after they have paid their debt to society.

According to the City’ Center for Employment Opportunities, most people are unemployed upon release from prison and 60 percent remain unemployed one year after release. If and when they find employers willing to hire them, they can expect to work approximately nine fewer weeks each year, earn less money, and have limited economic and geographic mobility.

Measures like the Fair Chance Act help reverse this trend, and in the process help rebuild our communities through access to jobs, second chances to support families, reinvigorated community ties and reduced anti-social behavior. The city’s economy stands to benefit as well by having more people working and paying taxes.

Passage of the law cannot happen soon enough for Victor Fisher.

“It’s been kind of rough,” said Fisher. “I am no stranger to hard work. But once you check that box, that’s a strike against you. Without that box being there it gives you an even chance to sell yourself. I may be as qualified or more qualified than the person without a criminal background.”

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