So long, box: City to give former criminals better shot at employment

SEATTLE - Arrested nearly 100 times, convicted of numerous felony charges and put in prison - on paper her past isn't pretty - but Rose Green says her criminal record doesn't define the woman she is now.

"I just celebrated 10 years on the job," Green says.

Green spent nearly a year filling out dozens of applications, hoping to hear something back; but all the while she knew the crimes she committed years ago continued to haunt her. She finally caught a break when a local grocery store hired her. She remembers that sense of hope she felt back then and, she can't wait for others to feel that same relief soon.

"To take that box off, even to consider it, that's huge for us," Green says.

That box Green is talking about - the one where employers ask applicants if they've ever been arrested or convicted of a crime - will no longer be allowed on applications once Seattle's Job Assistance ordinance takes effect Nov. 1.

In preparation for the new law, the Seattle Office for Civil Rights recently drafted a set of rules, currently available for public review, to help employers and applicants better understand how the legislation works and what it means for each of them.

"It's requiring employers to look at people as people, not just records," says Vanessa Torres Hernandez, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington. "I think this makes a huge difference for those people who have truly rehabilitated and more than deserve that second chance."

Green is one of those, one of those lucky enough to get a second chance; but she remembers exactly what she was told and how she felt when she started her job search 10 years ago.

"They told you in the beginning that the (business) society as a whole frowns on thefts and assaults" Green says. "That was really a downer for me because my background, my record was full of thefts, a lot of them."

Green's criminal past includes more than 20 years of drug and theft arrests and convictions, dating back to the 1970s. The only way she knew she would stop living a life of crime was to get a job; but she says that's not any easier now then it was 10 years ago.

"When they look at the box and see that you have been arrested it's really like a door slammed in your face. It was really hard for me to get employment because of that box," Green says. "I believe that the person with the record is not first, second, third or fourth choice."

The Seattle Job Assistance legislation, approved by city council in June, applies to all businesses with one or more employees, excluding law enforcement and anyone who could have unsupervised access to children under 16-years-old, developmentally disabled populations, and/or vulnerable adults.

Beginning Nov. 1, employers within city limits will no longer be able to advertise "no felon" positions and will not be able to reject a qualified job applicant solely on a conviction record or pending criminal case unless they have a "legitimate business reason."

Business owners and employers voiced concerns over what constitutes a legitimate business reason during a public meeting regarding the new law held last month. According to the rules outlined by the Office for Civil Rights, a number of factors must be considered by an employer when citing a legitimate business reason, including if an applicant's criminal conviction or pending charge could affect their ability to do the work or could harm the business' reputation.

While Hernandez expects it to take some time for business owners to fully understand the rules and the ordinance, she says she thinks the legislation is pretty clear.

"You take the box off the application, you don't advertise 'no felons' so long as you are not one of the covered employers and you give employees notice of what's showed up (on their background check) and then 48 hours to provide documentation," Hernandez says.

Green says she is hopeful the city's new law will give others like her who have struggled like she did to find work a fair shot at success.

"I am advocating for them," Green says. "There are some out there who are really trying to do the right thing, and a second chance at living a normal life is very rewarding."

The second public meeting on the ordinance and the draft rules is scheduled from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. Sept. 17 at the New Holly Gathering Hall in South Seattle.

Seattle residents have until Sept. 20 to comment on the rules. And, the Office for Civil Rights plans to release a final version of the rules by Oct. 1.