Does Seattle's "Ban the Box" Ordinance Go Too Far?

By Michael Klazema on 8/5/2015
As the Fair Chance employment movement continues to gather speed, Seattle is recognized as being one of the few cities nationwide to ban the box for both public and private employers. But does Seattle's "ban the box" ordinance go too far? That's the question being raised by some local businesses that have been charged with violating the ordinance since it first went into effect into 2013.

According to a report from KING 5 News, an NBC affiliate based in the Seattle area, the city's Job Assistance Ordinance has caused problems for a number of local companies. In addition to implementing the types of policies that are common for "ban the box" legislation, such as requiring employers to remove questions pertaining to criminal history from their job applications, the Job Assistance Ordinance goes one step further. In job postings, advertisements, and descriptions, Seattle employers are not allowed to say that applicants will be required to pass a criminal background check prior to hiring.

The intent of this particular policy is clear: Seattle officials want to give ex-offenders a chance at equal employment. So when businesses advertise a criminal background check requirement for a job, that can be seen as a means of discriminating against those with criminal history, simply because it scares those individuals off. In other words, through the lens of the Job Assistance Ordinance, an employer advertising that their jobs require background checks essentially equates to "convicted criminals need not apply."

For Seattle employers, removing questions about criminal history from job applications hasn't been a problem. Not referencing background checks in job descriptions and postings, though, has been something of a sticking point. KING 5 News pulled records from the city's Office of Civil Rights and found that 40 local businesses have been charged with discriminating for violating the latter stipulation of the Job Assistance Ordinance.

One example was a company called B&Z Moving, which listed the background check requirement in their job posting, simply because state law requires all moving companies to run employee background checks. In fact, in addition to requiring criminal screenings, state law bars moving companies from hiring anyone who has been convicted of violent crimes, theft, or sexual misconduct. In other words, individuals with those types of convictions on their records need not apply to B&Z Moving, because the company would have to break the law to offer those people jobs.

The city councilman who sponsored the Job Assistance Ordinance noted that the legislation doesn't bar employers from running background checks. On the contrary, a company such as B&Z Moving is fully at liberty to obey state law and put their applicants through background checks before issuing a job offer. Those checks just have to wait until after the initial interview, and cannot be advertised as part of the official job posting.

But is it wrong for an employer to practice full disclosure in warning applicants of the steps necessary to secure a job? Or is it better for ex-offenders to know when to expect background checks, or better yet, to know which types of offenses legally bar them from holding a certain type of position? After all, a convicted burglar could feasibly land an interview and impress the hiring managers at B&Z Moving, but he still would not be able to get a job with the company. The applicant would be better off investing his time applying for jobs without the same stipulations or limitations.

It's clear that the Seattle City Council was trying to do right by ex-offenders and Fair Chance employment proponents in authoring this particular ordinance. However, by not allowing employers to advertise that their jobs require background checks, they are 1) concealing key information that could help offenders to focus their job searches better, and 2) creating a confusing, convoluted web of local and state background check rules for employers to navigate.


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