By David Levinsky
TRENTON - New Jersey lawmakers advanced a controversial measure that would ban many employers from performing background checks or asking if a job applicant has any criminal convictions until after the candidate has been conditionally offered the position.
The Assembly Labor Committee voted 6-3 along party lines Monday to approve the bill for a possible floor vote by the full Assembly.
The Opportunity to Compete Act (PDF) would prohibit businesses with at least 15 employees from performing background checks during the interview process. It would permit checks on candidates who are conditionally hired, but would require them to provide written notice of their intention to do so as well as notice of their rights and protections.
Employers would be able to consider in their decision convictions for the most serious crimes, such as murder, attempted murder, robbery, burglary, arson or sex offenses, regardless of when the crimes occurred. For other crimes, the employer would be barred from weighing into their decision offenses that occurred longer than 10 years ago.
Disorderly-person offenses and pending criminal charges could also be considered if they occurred within the last five years. Juvenile offenses and offenses that have been expunged, pardoned or legally nullified may not be considered.
Law enforcement and fire services would be exempt from the proposed mandates, which would not supersede any other state or federal laws. Violations by businesses would be subject to fines ranging from $500 to $7,500.
Supporters of the bill said it is desperately needed to ensure that people convicted of crimes are not branded for life and that reformed convicts are given the opportunity to contribute. They noted that an estimated one out of four adults nationwide have criminal records.
“One of the greatest barriers for a second chance is the barrier for employment,” the bill’s sponsor, Assemblywoman Bonnie Watson-Coleman, D-15th of Ewing, said Monday during the Labor Committee’s hearing on the bill.
The bill’s Senate sponsor, Sen. Ray Lesniak, D-20th of Elizabeth, said providing employment opportunities was crucial to reducing recidivism in criminal offenders.
“An ex-offender who has the door for employment slammed in their face will not be an ex-offender for long. They’ll be a repeat offender,” Lesniak said.
Opponents of the measure were mostly representatives of various business groups, which argued that it would create unwanted paperwork and might also put businesses at a greater risk for lawsuits.
Most said that they would support a bill banning inquiries about criminal convictions on job applications, but that the proposal restricting inquiries until after a candidate has been conditionally hired goes too far.
“To try to legislate this is difficult. There’s no cookie-cutter approach to what this legislation intends,” said Michael Egenton, senior vice president of government relations for the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce.
“This gives little consideration to the fact that every workplace is unique, and the demands for each job differ,” said Stefanie Riehl, assistant vice president for the New Jersey Business and Industry Association.
Assemblyman Ronald Dancer, R-12th of Plumsted, also expressed concerns about the potential negative impact on businesses.
“It just seems there are more and more regulations coming down on the business community,” Dancer said during the hearing.
But an official from Barnabas Health testified that its experience with hiring at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center in Newark has been positive since the city created a similar law restricting background checks by employers in November 2012.
Ten other states have passed similar legislation to help convicted offenders find work, said Cornell Brooks, CEO of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice.
He called the proposed legislation “the most business-sensitive in the nation” while still addressing the need to remove employment impediments for criminal offenders.
“These people face insurmountable barriers. They file job application after application without ever being considered,” Brooks said.