Rules helping ex-cons find work are now targeted

January 7, 2017
The Huntsville Item

The state's capital last spring became the first city in the South to stop private employers from looking into an applicant's criminal past before a job offer is on the table.

The rule followed a similar measure for government workers and won support from advocates who called it a step toward restoring citizenship, and lowering unemployment, among ex-convicts.

But the rule and similar "ban the box" laws, which seek to erase criminal history questions from job applications, are taking criticism. A Republican lawmaker wants to stop Texas cities from enacting them, wiping Austin’s off the books.

Rep. Paul Workman, of Travis County, author of House Bill 577, cited several reasons to stop the rules, including the binds they slap on business people screening would-be employees.

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But critics of Workman's bill note that 1 in 3 adults in Texas has a criminal history — a factor that screens out many applicants automatically and disproportionately affects people of color.

Unemployment among parolees has been measured at more than 51 percent, according to the William Wayne Justice Center for Public Interest Law.

A 2011 survey of parolees and former inmates in Austin and Travis County found that more than three-quarters said their convictions were the biggest barrier to reentering society.

“Even with a ban-the-box ordinance, the employer is under no obligation to hire the person. What they’re trying to do is provide a fair shot," said Ed Sills, communications director of the Texas AFL-CIO.

Jorge Renaud knows what it’s like to look for a job with a record. Now an organizer for Grassroots Leadership, an Austin-based civil rights group, Renaud served 25 years for robbery. He later earned a graduate degree in social work.

“I got out and had difficulty finding employment and housing,” said Renaud, 60. “People would throw my application off the top of the pile. I appreciated people who would sit down and say, ‘Tell me what happened.’"

"If you get to know me," he said, "you’ll see that I’m a reasonable guy.”