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Back to work: San Francisco reduces unfair barriers to employment

Earlier this month, San Francisco Board of Supervisors unanimously voted to implement a Fair Chance Ordinance promoting fair hiring policies among both public and private employers. The measure is commonly known as “ban the box” and simply removes a question regarding an applicant’s criminal history from the initial job application. Despite the modest nature of the reform, it is set to empower many residents seeking employment and provide a model for the rest of the state.

Approximately 65 million, or one in four, adults in the United States have criminal histories. The prevalence of contact with the justice system cuts across all communities, and the longer-term consequences affect everyone. Among other things, having a criminal record can bar you from employment opportunities, housing, student financial aid, obtaining professional and occupational licenses, and travel. These barriers can be far reaching, extending decades after a conviction happened and a sentence completed, with little recourse for the person to “clean up their record”.

They also disproportionately impact people of color; studies show that white job applicants with criminal records are more likely to get a call back than African American applicants with criminal records. San Francisco’s notably disparate arrest patterns suggest that African American residents are significantly more likely to face these employment barriers, even as the city’s economy improves with the influx of tech companies. Yet, studies have demonstrated that access to gainful employment reduces the likelihood of recidivism and improves reentry outcomes.

San Francisco’s Fair Chance Ordinance strives to reduce reentry barriers to people who have served their time for prior crimes. Co-sponsors Supervisors Jane Kim and Malia Cohen joined supporters outside City Hall on Tuesday, February 4th to celebrate the historic reform. They noted that strong collaboration with the Chamber of Commerce was key to the ordinance’s success. A representative of Target, a well-known department store chain with a branch in San Francisco, also attended in support. Target recently adopted a ban the box hiring policy throughout its stores nationwide.

Poignant speakers from All of Us or None described the effect these reforms can have, providing possibility in an often-hopeless environment. They indicated that people with criminal histories are so demoralized by the stigma of their past that they often do not apply to jobs they are otherwise qualified for. This reform provides a chance to be considered on their merits, like everyone else.

The San Francisco reform still allows employers to consider an applicant’s criminal history, but only after they have considered that person’s qualifications for the job. Additionally, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) guidelines provide a national standard for evaluating a person’s criminal record to ensure that employers maintain the safety of their workplaces and the integrity of their businesses without unfairly discriminating against formerly incarcerated individuals. In an era of economic scarcity and unemployment, this approach is crucial to public safety. San Francisco’s progressive reentry practices provide a replicable model for the rest of California.

Keywords: employment, reentry, San Francisco, Selena Teji

Posted in Blog, Model Local Practices

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