Austin passes Fair Chance Hiring ordinance

DLM’s Brian McGiverin joined with members of the Second Chance Democrats of Austin and other advocates at the Austin City Council on March 24, and they succeeded in encouraging the Council to pass the “Fair Chance Hiring” ordinance described in previous coverage linked from this blog.

The events from that evening were described in on the well known “Grits for Breakfast” blog, which are copied below.

Austin passes Fair Chance Hiring ordinance

FRIDAY, MARCH 25, 2016  Grits for Breakfast

 Last night, the Austin City Council passed a Fair Chance Hiring ordinance, becoming the first city in the South to require employers to wait until a conditional offer of employment has been made to inquire about an applicant’s criminal history. While similar “Ban the Box” initiatives have gained traction across the country, the Austin ordinance goes further than most fair chance laws in that it applies to private employers, delays the criminal history question until the point of conditional offer, and includes a civil penalty of up to $500.

According to Grassroots Leadership, which helped lead efforts to pass the ordinance, more than one in three Texans has a criminal record, and 2200 people return to the Austin area each year from prison. Even though employment stability is one of the top factors in preventing recidivism, 60-75% of people released from prison cannot find work within a year of their release. And the effects of incarceration disproportionately impact people of color: African Americans make up nearly 35% of people incarcerated in Texas prisons, while they represent only 12.5% of Texas’ overall population. With Austin’s unemployment rate exceptionally low and employers in need of applicants, it also makes sense for Austin to pass measures that would help increase the labor pool.

At last night’s hearing, the City Council heard public testimony from many formerly incarcerated individuals who spoke about the difficulty of obtaining gainful employment, the shame and stigma that comes with having a criminal record, and how their families have been impacted by their incarceration. Susannah Bannon, a Ph.D. student at the University of Texas at Austin, stated that her retired parents should not have to “worry about whether or not their 35-year old daughter who is halfway through her doctoral degree can pay her rent,” and asked if “someone who comes from this much privilege and has this much support … cannot make it in Austin, how can someone who is less fortunate do it?” Jorge Renaud, an organizer with Texas Advocates for Justice, slammed the “privileged few” opposing the ordinance, who he said were trying to persuade the Council “to continue a policy that has resulted in families, communities and entire neighborhoods on the east side and south side of Austin, impoverished and destitute and unable to climb out of poverty.”

Attorney Brian McGiverin, who also testified in support of the ordinance, placed the measure in the context of the Civil Rights Movement. He began his testimony with a quotation from a letter written on behalf of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in 1963 regarding legislation that would become a piece of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The excerpt resembled statements that have been made in opposition to the Austin ordinance: “The problem involves so many considerations that any bill comprehensive enough to cover them all would in all probability do more harm than good. The better approach to the problem is a combination of voluntary efforts and increased education to ensure better understanding of the need.” McGiverin argued that the “gameplan for gutting civil rights legislation really hasn’t changed that much in the past 50 years” and urged the Council not to be persuaded by the same “tired” arguments that have been used in the past to try to defeat antidiscrimination laws.

Opponents to the ordinance were mostly from the business community and included the Austin Chamber of Commerce, the Texas Credit Union Association, and the Texas Public Policy Foundation. A representative with the Texas Credit Union Association stated that the ordinance “imposes unnecessary costs and burdens on business and imposes particular risks on financial institutions,” referring to potential conflict with federal laws that prohibit financial institutions from employing people with certain criminal histories. However, Council Member Kitchen pointed out that the ordinance expressly did not apply where state or federal law disqualifies a person with a criminal history from holding certain jobs. Temporary staffing firms also voiced concerns that the ordinance would interfere with their particular business model, where applicants apply to the staffing firm for employment but are ultimately sent to outside employers which have their own hiring requirements. In response to those concerns an amendment was adopted that would allow the firms to conduct background checks either upon conditional offer of outside employment, or upon an applicant’s entry into a hiring pool.

Prior to the vote, Council Member Renteria spoke in support of the measure, and – like many of the advocates who testified in support – invoked his personal experience.  He described his brother’s involvement in the criminal justice system and the effects of his brother’s criminal record on work opportunities. His brother, who spent most of his childhood and young adult life incarcerated – first in the Waco State School from age 8 and later in TDCJ until age 32 – is now 68 years old, has never earned more than $10 an hour and has never had health benefits. Council Member Renteria stated that, when his brother was incarcerated, “society at that time really didn’t care about low-income minorities,” and implored his fellow council members to “show our compassion.”

The ordinance was sponsored by Council Member Greg Casar and in the end was opposed by only two Council members. In a moment when communities across the country are looking for ways to improve outcomes for formerly incarcerated people, the ordinance is one of the more progressive efforts we’ve seen and sets an important precedent.

For my part, it was fascinating and inspiring to see a grassroots effort, led by people directly affected by the policy, defeat entrenched and well-funded interests to effect immediate and impactful change. Congratulations to Council Member Greg Casar and the organizers and advocates who have spent the better part of the past year working to get the ordinance passed.

Video from last night’s hearing can be found here.