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Legislative leaders open to extending ‘ban the box’ to state boards and commissions

Hortman, Walz, Gazelka
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
House Speaker Melissa Hortman, Gov. Tim Walz and Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka speaking to the press on Wednesday.

Leaders in the Minnesota House and Senate said Wednesday they are open to changing a state law that asks applicants to jobs on state boards and commissions whether they are a felon.

Last month, MinnPost reported the law is a rare exception to another statute prohibiting public and private employers from inquiring about criminal history before an applicant has been selected for an interview or received a conditional employment offer. Known as “ban the box,” the law’s intent is to prevent employers from screening out ex-offenders before they get a chance to have an interview. 

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, told reporters he had concerns that ban-the-box laws actually hurt the chances of employment for people of color, but said closing the exemption is “worth pursuing.” House Speaker Melissa Hortman, a DFLer from Brooklyn Park, said the felony question should end. “If it’s a loophole we need to get rid of it,” she said.

Minnesota blocked public employers from putting a criminal history check on job applications in 2009. A few years later, in 2013, the Legislature extended that prohibition to cover private employers.

While Minnesota was early to the trend, 35 states now have some form of the ban-the-box law, which has been embraced as a criminal justice measure by powerful conservatives like the billionaire Charles Koch and his late brother David, as well as Democrats such as Barack Obama.

Minnesota’s version of the law has exemptions for positions that legally require some form of a background check, including jobs at the Department of Corrections. But due to a 2004 law — passed without much apparent discussion in the Legislature — exemptions also include appointed positions on more than 200 boards and commissions.

The jobs range from largely unpaid spots on advisory councils to highly paid jobs on the powerful Public Utilities Commission and Metropolitan Council. Hundreds, if not thousands, of people apply to the positions each year, which are selected by the governor. Those applications, and responses to the felony question, are public records.

Supporters of ban the box told MinnPost leaving the exception in state law may have been an accidental oversight. Gov. Tim Walz echoed that Wednesday.

When asked by MinnPost in January about the felony question, Walz said it should be removed by the Legislature. On Wednesday, the DFLer told reporters at a media event held by Forum Communications Company that applicants’ answers to the criminal history check won’t sway his thinking, but could stop people “from even applying.”

The governor said he wants input from people with criminal histories, particularly on councils related to the justice system.

Hortman said she agreed with the governor’s stance. Gazelka, however, cited writing by Thomas Sowell, a Stanford economist who argues that employers who can’t ask an applicant about their criminal history may screen people of color from employment more often because they assume minorities are more likely to break the law. “We need to be careful of what we’re trying to do” and make sure the law will “accomplish what we really wanted it to do,” Gazelka said.

There is research to back up the theory. One study published in August 2018 by researchers at Texas A&M University and the University of Oregon found state and local ban-the-box policies reduce the probability of employment for young black men without a college degree by 3.4 percent and for young Hispanic men without a college degree by 2.3 percentage points. Other experiments and research reach similar conclusions.

Yet conflicting research suggests ban-the-box laws work. Employment of people with criminal records increased by 33 percent after Washington, D.C., adopted a ban-the-box law, for instance, according to the National Employment Law Project. 

Supporters of the policy argue it’s wrong to not adopt a ban-the-box law out of fear that employers will illegally discriminate against applicants because of their race. That happens with or without ban-the-box laws, wrote attorney Phil Hernandez in a 2017 online post for the NELP.

“If the most forceful argument against ban-the-box is that it exposes racial discrimination against young men of color, then our focus should be on expanding and enforcing anti-discrimination laws rather than unraveling policies that effectively serve people with criminal records,” Hernandez wrote.

Despite his concerns, Gazelka did not rule out extending Minnesota’s ban-the-box law to candidates for boards and commissions. “I’m certainly willing to discuss it,” he said.

The 2009 ban-the-box law was approved by Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty and a DFL-controlled House and Senate.

Comments (11)

  1. Submitted by Pat Terry on 02/06/2020 - 11:21 am.

    Is there any indication that this makes a difference? You can’t ask when they initially apply, but you can ask at the interview. And employers can look up criminal records any time anyway. This seems like a feel good measure. Maybe reading about Jacob Frey’s policy fellow who was selling drugs on the side and illegally carrying a gun has soured me on second chances at the moment.

    I also would want to know if I am hiring someone with a felony conviction. Not saying its always a deal breaker, but I definitely want to be able to know. I know some lawyers who hired a secretary but didn’t find out she had stolen $20k or so from a prior employer. Guess how that worked out.

    I do background checks on my own prospective clients. I recently had a woman with a felony fraud conviction who I turned away because her credibility would have mattered for the case. I am sympathetic to felons who want to do right and re-integrate into society, but pretending their crimes didn’t happen isn’t the answer.

  2. Submitted by joe smith on 02/06/2020 - 12:51 pm.

    Can you also hide your bad financial record, a dishonorable discharge from the military or anything else that gives your future employer a glimpse as to who you have been up to this point in your life? This is a typical “let’s all act like the employer has no rights”, totally impractical.

    • Submitted by Bob Barnes on 02/06/2020 - 01:56 pm.

      I would tend to agree. For instance, someone with a history of theft or fraud should not be allowed anywhere near an accounting type job. If you prevent employers from asking or finding out about that type of history you’re just making matters worse.

      Also they likely won’t make it past an interview anyway since employers can ask the question there. Seems like more feel good legislation than something actually useful.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 02/06/2020 - 02:55 pm.

      I have to say, the irony of two Trump supporters making noises about how important it is to know about dishonesty “or anything else that gives your future employer a glimpse as to who you have been up to this point in your life” is priceless.

      • Submitted by joe smith on 02/06/2020 - 07:20 pm.

        Past behavior predicts future actions. For employers who have actually hired folks, their past behavior is an important factor. I can’t understand why an employer shouldn’t have as much information on a potential employee as he can get. Employers, who have borrowed money, rented space, insured their business and not only invested money but time, need to know who they are hiring. To think anything less is living in some alternative world or you never ran a business.

        • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 02/07/2020 - 08:36 am.

          So you could know all about an applicant’s personal, moral, and business failures, his demonstrated record of fraud and dishonesty, and his public record of bragging about despicable conduct, but you would give him the job anyway?

          • Submitted by joe smith on 02/07/2020 - 12:14 pm.

            When you have 2 flawed applicants for 1 job, you take the one that has actually done something. Sometimes you get lucky and the applicant does everything he says he’s going to do and your business takes off to new levels. Sadly, you run into the applicant you turned down and they continually complain they didn’t get the job. Such is life!

            • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 02/07/2020 - 01:52 pm.

              “When you have 2 flawed applicants for 1 job, you take the one that has actually done something.”

              Six bankruptcies, including some in an industry where the business model involves people giving you money without any guarantee of receiving anything in return. That’s an accomplishment. So is running up a record of stiffing suppliers and contractors and running them into the ground with pointless litigation. Not everyone has done that, nor has everyone had a sham “university” shut down by regulators.

              Honestly, Mr. Smith, would you really hire that person for your business? Would you want them dealing with the public on your behalf, when he brags about assaulting women?

              What kind of operation are you running?

              • Submitted by joe smith on 02/08/2020 - 12:07 pm.

                RB, as I said, sometimes you get lucky. So you are saying employers should have the right to know everything about a potential employee, including prior arrests. I agree.

                • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 02/10/2020 - 09:05 am.

                  Would you hire a person off the street who had a record comparable to Trump’s? Would you give him the opportunity because you might “get lucky,” or would you even call him in for an interview?

          • Submitted by Pat Terry on 02/07/2020 - 01:17 pm.

            I guess my concern is more about being able to find out. I can still hire (or vote for) someone despite their problematic history. But give me the choice. Trump’s history certainly is disqualifying for me, but I wouldn’t vote Republican anyway so its hard for me to say.

            The Dems have a candidate who was a deadbeat dad. A able-bodied guy who paid no child support while the mother of his child was on welfare. A guy who was investigated for bank fraud after his wife ran a college into the ground after defaulting on loans. Yet many people still see Bernie Sanders as an honest guy. We’ll see if they still think that if he wins the nomination and gets his history put on full blast. But the point is that people are able to delude themselves about a person’s character if the like the politics.

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