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NYC Prepares To End Hurdle To Jobs After Prison

Finding a job is tough. But studies show it’s especially hard for 70 million Americans who have a criminal record.

Many blame a checkbox on application forms that asks whether a person is a convicted felon.

On March 1st New Jersey implemented a law to ban the box. Now advocates want New York City to follow suit. Joe Sykes reports.

In a small classroom at the Fortune Society in Long Island City, Hubert Lila stands before a group of 10 convicted felons. He takes them through the kinds of questions they might have to answer in a job interview.

Lila: I’ve interviewed three other individuals today. Two of them I really like, another two I really don’t care for. Why should I hire you over them. Don’t all answer it at the same time now.(00.17

Eventually, David Fletcher, a 44 year old man who’s served time for assault, gives it it a go.

Fletcher: The reason why you should hire me is you’re getting more than just a technician. You’re getting someone who’s committed, motivated, I’m a quick learner and I’m committed to your company because your success is my success

Lila: Anybody else wanna give that a shot? Hahahahah… He got the position already. (00.17)

But many ex-felons are lucky to even get to the interview stage. That’s because of a box at the bottom of most job applications, which asks whether or not you have ever committed a crime.

And that little box causes a whole world of problems.

Byron: you feel like it’s gonna be a no automatically so its like what’s the point(00.07)

Byron Lewis, another student at the Fortune Society, was convicted of attempted robbery in 2005. He served only a few months in prison, and then 5 years on probation. Since then, he says he’s filled out hundreds of job applications.

Byron: I got one call back I remember from an application but it didn’t ask the question whether I had a felony or not. That was the only thing. (00.11)

And Byron says all this rejection really takes a toll.

Byron: It’s like a big circle you know it’s like I feel like I’m not a part of that circle because everytime I go for a job interview I’m automatically of this..10 years ago something you did…who’s the same after 10 years? (00.13)

In fact it’s illegal in New York State for companies to refuse employment because an applicant has a criminal background.

But the box makes that really hard to prove

So Deevah(DEE-vah) Pager who’s a professor of sociology at Harvard University set out to ask what effect the box actually has.

Pager: So I set up a field experiment in which I hired young men to pose as job applicants and then I sent them all over the city applying for real low wage, low skilled positions and I found that simply checking the box saying yes I had been convicted of a crime, reduced the chances of a job offer by about half. (00.22)

She says this box just doesn’t give employers enough information.

Pager: There is such a wide net of people that have been in contact with the criminal justice system. A criminal record means lots of different things and it’s impossible for an employer to make sense of all of that. (00.12)

If that’s the case, why not ban the box altogether? Well, that’s exactly what some advocates are proposing.

Jumaane Williams is councilman for the 45th district in Brooklyn and the lead sponsor of the Fair Chance Act. The city has already removed the box from applications for public sector jobs. But William’s bill would go even farther: not only would the box disappear from all job applications, private employers would be banned from asking about criminal records in an interview — until after they had offered an applicant a job.

Williams: I really believe we’re going to see this pass and make some history in New York City. It’s important because where New York City goes the rest of the country starts to follow. (00.10)

And while New York’s law might end up the strongest, they are in fact late to the party. Policies like these are already in place in up to a dozen states…..But not everyone is happy about it.

Day: The threat of liability and lawsuit on small businesses is a huge concern.(00.06)

That’s Molly Brogan Day, the vice president of public affairs at the National Association of Small Business.

She says the earlier you can know about a criminal background, the easier it will be to protect customers.

Day: It’s nothing at all to do with wanting to prevent criminals for getting jobs. It’s about the safety of employees and clients and I think that’s a very reasonable concern. (00.11)

Reasonable or not, for now, it’s allowed….So the Fortune Society is preparing its students to respond to that fateful question:

Interviewer: Have you ever been arrested, charged with, and or convicted of a crime?

Byron Lewis takes a deep breath and begins to answer.

Lewis: I was convicted of attempt to rob in 2005, it’s 2015, that was 10 years ago(00.05)

Fade down under narration

If advocates have their way, people like him won’t be faced with questions like these for much longer.

Joe Sykes, Columbia Radio News


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