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City weighs easing ex-convicts' job hunts

A proposal that would ban most employers in the City of Buffalo from asking on job applications whether an applicant has been convicted of a crime will be discussed by lawmakers during a committee meeting Tuesday.
More than 30 other cities and counties have banned that question from applications. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg last August ordered city departments not to ask that question at the time of application, with some exceptions.

The proposal from Majority Leader Demone A. Smith would be much broader, applying to city government, its vendors, as well as private and nonprofit organizations located in the city, with some exceptions.

The proposal would not prohibit employers from asking about criminal histories during interviews or from conducting background checks.

Smith said too many people are being released from prison to ignore them.

"We at least have to give them a fair shot at getting a job, because some people do have skills," said Smith, the Masten District Council member.

While it is illegal for employers to automatically discriminate against potential hires based on their criminal histories, qualified candidates with records often cannot get interviews, said Jeffrey M. Conrad, Erie County director of the Center for Employment Opportunities, which works with parolees.

"I just don't think that [existing] law goes far enough," said Conrad, who worked with Smith on the proposal.

The unemployment rate among the 1,300 parolees in Buffalo is 63 percent, Conrad said, noting that many have problems with online applications that include questions about criminal histories.

But certain employers rely on that question to know whether they need to ask about a job candidate's past, said James Calvin, president of the New York Association of Convenience Stores.

"We understand that nobody wants someone who was in trouble with the law but has straightened things around to be denied job opportunities," Calvin said. "At the same time, we need to protect our assets, and we need to make sure that those we hire are trustworthy."

The University at Buffalo, which would not be subject to the legislation because of its status as a state entity, uses the question, said James L. Jarvis, a lawyer who handles employment matters at UB.

"The university thinks that that is a valid and important question," Jarvis said, so the university is aware of prior convictions and "to determine if there is a causal nexus between [applicants'] job responsibilities and the crime for which they were convicted."

The leader of a major regional business organization, Andrew J. Rudnick, CEO of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, declined to be interviewed on this topic.

"Banning the box," a national movement that refers to the box that job applicants are asked to check if they have criminal records, seeks to allow ex-convicts to get in front of hiring managers before their applications are tossed aside.

When ex-offenders find jobs, advocates say, their neighborhoods improve because they are working and because they aren't turning to illegal activities for income, not to mention the further strain on the public treasury by increased jail costs.

"There's a real public safety side to this as well," Conrad said.

Applications for jobs associated with care of children or senior citizens would be exempt from the law, as would jobs in law enforcement, the city Fire Department and other positions where state or federal law dictates otherwise.

Legislation Committee Chairman Darius G. Pridgen of the Ellicott District said he was still considering the measure.

Fillmore Council Member David A. Franczyk said he could be convinced it's a good idea.

"I will keep an open mind on it, but you can't stop the employer from looking it up anyway," Franczyk said, noting the availability of public documents relating to criminal records.

Mayor Byron W. Brown will wait to see the final legislation before stating his position, said spokesman Michael J. DeGeorge.

The Legislation Committee is expected to hear from ex-offenders during its meeting at 2 p.m. Tuesday in Council Chambers.