The city of Portland is looking at policies to encourage employers to reduce barriers to jobs for people with criminal backgrounds. As the largest business group in the Portland-metro region, the Portland Business Alliance agrees with this goal, and has publicly stated that we support "banning the box," which calls for removing the question about criminal backgrounds from job applications.
That said, we also believe employers should have flexibility to look at an applicant's background when it makes sense for the job in question. For that reason, we have expressed grave concerns about the initial policy language we have seen, which would prohibit criminal background checks until a conditional offer of employment has been made. While that may work for some employers in some instances, it will not work for all.
Hotels, for example, should have broad discretion to investigate the background of potential employees who would carry master keys to hotel rooms. Hardware companies should be able to look at the background of people applying to be locksmiths. Remodeling companies should know the background of every employee they send into a client's home.
Those are all examples we have heard from members, who sincerely want to remove barriers to employment for people with criminal convictions, but also know the safety of their customers and employees must be paramount in all they do. We can't think of every single instant where a background check is important - nobody can. That is why we think employers need flexibility to make common sense decisions based on their expertise and the job in question.
We also have concern about language that establishes a "private right of action" for individuals who feel they were unfairly denied a job because of a criminal background. We do not see how encouraging more court fights will achieve the goal of greater employment for people with criminal convictions in their background.
The advocates on this issue are sincerely motivated to help more people get work, and we absolutely support that goal. They state over and over that employers should talk to individuals with convictions, rather than immediately ruling them out, to see if the conviction history really is a problem for the job in question. We agree with that too. That is why we are puzzled that the policy language we have seen forecloses all opportunities for discussion until the very end of the process, laying the groundwork for an adversarial exchange rather than honest face-to-face conversation.
The Alliance wants to be at the table for this discussion because we firmly believe there is a plan that will work for everyone. On Wednesday, we sent this letter to Mayor Hales asking him to create a work group with representatives of employers and advocates so that we can come together to have a discussion about common ground.
Please take a moment and email Mayor Hales and the other members of Portland City Council within the next week, encouraging them to work with employers on this important issue. Voice your support for banning the box to remove a known employment barrier, but ask Council members to understand that private employers must be at the table as the plan is devised.