The tight job market has made it easier for millions of Americans to find work in recent years — unless they have a criminal record.
According to a 2022 study by RAND Corp., more than half of unemployed men in their 30s had been arrested at least once. Overall, more than a quarter of all formerly incarcerated people are unemployed, including 44% of Black women and 35% of Black men, a 2018 report by the Prison Policy Initiative found.
The inability to find work, in turn, feeds the vicious spiral of recidivism, in which two out of three people coming out of California prisons return within three years (often for parole violations), according to Defy Ventures’ Southern California operations.
That’s why Los Angeles County launched its second Fair Chance Hiring Program this year to promote the hiring of “system impacted” individuals — that is, formerly incarcerated Californians and their close relatives. The program builds on the Fair Chance Act, a 2017 state law that bars most employers with five or more workers from rejecting applicants just because they have a criminal record.
The county offers financial incentives to help persuade companies to hire formerly incarcerated people, while also partnering with several community-based services to help prepare formerly incarcerated people for the job market. One of those services is Root & Rebound, where Rodriguez now works as the Fair Chance employment specialist.
On Tuesday, the county Board of Supervisors also agreed to develop a Fair Chance ordinance that tracks the state’s requirements, but adds teeth: Employers could be fined up to $2,000 per violation, with half the money going to the job-seeker who brought the complaint.
Here is a breakdown of the legal requirements and incentives for employers and the opportunities for Fair Chance job-seekers in L.A. County.
What the law requires
As of Jan. 1, 2018, most companies with five or more workers cannot ask job applicants up front whether they have any arrests or convictions on their record (the exceptions being law enforcement agencies, farm labor contractors and other employers required by law to make these inquiries).
Nor can they conduct background checks, do internet searches or take any other steps aimed at unearthing the criminal histories of their applicants.
This mandate is often referred to as “banning the box,” meaning that job application forms could no longer include a box for prospective hires to mark if they had a criminal record. The law’s goal is to end employers’ blanket refusal to hire formerly incarcerated people, requiring employers to judge applicants and their records individually, in the context of the work they would be doing.
Notably, the law doesn’t bar employers from considering a person’s criminal record; it only forces them to delay that issue until after offering the person a job. They can later withdraw the offer, but only if they discover convictions that have “a direct and adverse relationship with the specific duties of the job that justify denying the applicant the position,” according to the Fair Chance Act.
That individualized assessment must consider at least three things, according to state regulations:
· The nature and gravity of the offense or conduct;
· The time that has passed since the offense or conduct and/or completion of the sentence; and
· The nature of the job held or sought.
The law also requires employers who tentatively withdraw a job offer to give applicants the chance to submit new evidence of rehabilitation or mitigating circumstances before making a final decision.
Other state laws bar employers from considering arrests that don’t lead to convictions. California law doesn’t allow the companies that do background checks to show such information; nor can they reveal expunged convictions, sealed records or convictions whose sentences were completed more than seven years ago. Public employers, however, have access to an applicant’s full rap sheet, and it can be hard for people to unsee the arrest records they see there.
Benefits for employers and workers
The direct benefits for employers include a federal tax credit of $1,200 to $9,600 per Fair Chance applicant hired and a state tax credit of $2,500 to $10,000 per participant who had been homeless at some point in the previous six months, as many formerly incarcerated people are. The state also has a new employment credit that can cover 35% of the wages paid to qualified hires.
The county offers payroll subsidies that cover up to 90% of the cost of training someone hired through the program, among other grants to offset the cost of a new employee. And up to $10,000 worth of bonding insurance is available at no charge to cover any losses that might be caused by a Fair Chance program hire in the first six months on the job.
For job-seekers, the 19 regional America’s Job Centers overseen by the county will offer résumé building, interview preparation and career counseling.
The county can also connect these applicants to the services that many people need to hold down a job, such as transportation, work clothes and cash assistance.
It also offers grants for training programs in high-growth industries at community colleges and trade schools, and is working with the building trades to provide apprenticeships in construction.
Where things stand
According to the county Department of Economic Opportunity, seven out of 10 employers are unaware of the Fair Chance Act, and six out of 10 were not at all familiar with the county’s incentives.
That’s one of the main reasons L.A. County is launching another Fair Chance program (its first was in 2019), which includes a “really robust marketing campaign” to make sure employers know about the law’s requirements and benefits. The county’s goal is to bring 500 more employers into the effort, up from the 202 that pledged to take part in 2019.
Fair Chance advocates say the value of these employees is borne out by research. For example, the Society of Human Resource Management found that more than 80% of hiring managers and top business executives said that formerly incarcerated people performed as well as or better than their co-workers. This group also tended to stay in their jobs longer, while being at least as productive as their peers, the county Office of Economic Opportunity says.
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