Iowa City Wins Court Battle Over Banning the Box—For Now

By Michael Klazema on 4/16/2020

Across the country, many states and local communities have adopted “fair chance” laws aimed at increasing access to work for the formerly incarcerated. However, while such policies often find support from the public, opposition typically arises from a business sector that is wary of sacrificing its discretion in hiring matters. That conflict came to a head in one Iowa community when local leaders tried to "ban the box" and implement rules that would delay the use of tools such as a state-level criminal history report until after job interviews took place.

After the Waterloo City Commission passed its new ordinance late in 2019, the Iowa Association of Business and Industry filed suit. The IABI alleged that the rules unfairly infringed on a business owner's right to hire whomever they deem suitable. In early April 2020, the district court hearing the case dismissed the IABI's lawsuit. 

In the court's findings, the judge ruled that the Iowa Constitution's "home rule" clause gave the city the right to make such decisions on its own. The home rule amendment guarantees local municipalities certain powers of government separate from the state. 

The legal wrangling surrounding Waterloo's ban the box law has its roots in a conflict larger than the city's political and business leaders. Several states, Iowa among them, recently moved to pass pre-emption laws. State lawmakers, unhappy with municipalities setting their own stricter regulations, seek to curtail that ability. The plaintiffs in the dismissed Waterloo case argued that the Iowa Code forbade such new rules, and that the home rule provision should not apply. 

The Iowa legislature concurrently considered a bill that would pre-empt all local, hiring-related laws. The bill makes it illegal for any municipality to enact hiring rules more stringent than those imposed by existing state and federal laws. Iowa does not have a statewide ban the box policy. State legislators argue for unifying patchwork rules and creating consistency for businesses, while local communities argue that such actions leave them ill-equipped to respond to their own needs. 

The legislature temporarily suspended consideration of that bill (and all others) due to the coronavirus pandemic. Waterloo's new rules are still set to go into effect by July 2020. The IABI says that it has already filed an appeal to move the case up in the courts. Businesses in the Waterloo area must continue their preparations to adopt the new rules.

For businesses of all sizes, keeping up with changing legal obligations is a challenge. As legal fights continue over ban the box rules, there is often uncertainty lingering around the issue of hiring.

No rules completely bar background checks—they merely delay them. With the appropriate tools and a trusted service provider, such as, businesses may prepare to hire swiftly and with confidence at the appropriate stage. With informative resources on legal compliance and instant results, a changing legislative landscape does not have to be a barrier to acquiring talent.

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