Ex-offenders still face illegal discrimination
When Mayor de Blasio signed the Fair Chance Act this month, New York took a welcome step forward.
The new law prohibits employers from inquiring about a job applicant’s criminal history before they have made a conditional offer. It bans the box — “check here if you have been convicted of a crime” — that is a symbol of permanent unemployment for so many. It does not prohibit employers from taking that history into consideration. It does, however, make sure that every job seeker gets a fair shot first.
With this law, New York City is beginning to face its history of allowing employers to consign those with any criminal history in their past — especially low-income citizens and persons of color — to a lifetime of struggle to find employment. Even before the Fair Chance Act, employers were prohibited from banning all applicants with criminal histories and were required to consider a variety of factors and qualifications when using criminal history as a screen for jobs.
Despite these progressive policies, however, employers continued to discriminate with impunity — underscoring the need for serious enforcement efforts. A quick search on any of the major job-listing sites reveals dozens of companies whose listings outright ignore the law.
Illegal ex-offenders-need-not-apply bans litter the online job marketplace. Postings from everyone from global tech companies to local exterminators list “no felonies” or even “no arrests” as job requirements. These statements flaunt the law and force individuals with criminal histories trying to rebuild their lives to remain on society’s fringes.
Discrimination based on criminal history does not harm communities of color alone, but the burden does fall more heavily on them because of the grim disparities in the criminal justice system. We have heard the numbers many times, but they remain stunning. While blacks make up 16% of New York state’s population, they are 53% of its incarcerated. Nationwide, one in three black men will be incarcerated in their lifetimes.
The damage done to our communities is broadly felt. Fathers and sons are removed from society for months or years, and when they return their economic prospects are all but dead.
While finding a decent job is hard enough for anyone, it can be nearly impossible when a mistake you made one, five, or 20 years ago follows you around, like a big X over your head.
With the black unemployment rate nationally twice as high as that for whites continuously for decades, the harm caused to the black community by illegal employer discrimination is disproportionate and difficult to overcome. If individuals with criminal histories can’t find work, then every sentence becomes a life sentence, economically. But it doesn’t have to — and shouldn’t — be that way.
The NAACP has a long history of taking legal action when faced with rampant, unpoliced discrimination. In this tradition, the NAACP New York State Conference Metropolitan Council of Branches has filed a class-action lawsuit, not on behalf of a class of victims but against a class of perpetrators: all employers who openly tell New Yorkers with criminal convictions that they need not apply.
Our suit demands that Monster, Indeed and ZipRecruiter — three of the largest online job sites — turn over lists of employers that have posted discriminatory job listings in the past three years. And it asks that those companies — like the named defendants Philips Electronics, NTT Data, Recall Total Information Management and Advance Tech Pest Control — be forbidden from continuing their illegal practices.
Society works better for everyone when we give those who have made mistakes a chance to redeem themselves.
Each year, more than 20,000 people are released from New York prisons. Each of them faces a fork in the road. One route leads right back to prison. But many are eager to take the route that leads to a better life — to find work, contribute to society and put their past behind them.
Too often, though, we put roadblocks in the way of that path. It’s time we take them down.
Cohen is the director of the NAACP New York State Conference Metropolitan Council of Branches