Try As He Might, Harrell Can’t Get Business on Board with Background Check Bill

Seattle City Councilmember Bruce Harrell’s innocuously titled “Jobs Assistance Legislation” - which was passed, after a bit of haggling, by Harrell’s Public Safety, Civil Rights and Technology committee this afternoon – is a long time coming. Seeking to increase public safety and reduce criminal recidivism by limiting an employer’s ability to inquire about an applicant’s criminal record, the ideas behind the proposed legislation have been floating around Harrell’s office at City Hall since at least last September.

But when it comes to crafting a passable bill with the intention of pushing Seattle businesses hire more former criminals, things take time. And that’s why Harrell has spent the better part of eight months meeting with local business interests in an attempt to alleviate concerns over the controversial measure.

Have all these fears – some which Harrell calls “un-based” - been subdued? No. But while admitting that many members of Seattle’s Chamber of Commerce are still not on board with the proposed legislation – despite the fact concessions have been made from his initial version of the bill, which included more restrictive language - Harrell says he was ready to move forward.

“I think there are a lot of businesses that support it,” Harrell told Seattle Weekly Wednesday afternoon, prior to the committee meeting. “But I wasn’t trying to get businesses to be the spokesperson for this.”

As Lynn Thompson of the Seattle Times noted in Wednesday’s paper, Harrell’s bill would prohibit employers from asking about an applicant’s criminal history until after an initial screen had been completed (Harrell’s first version prohibited background checks until a job offer had been extended). The legislation would also “ban the box,” as it’s become known – preventing job applications that asks would-be employees if they’ve ever been convicted of a crime. Employers would still be able to deny employment based on an applicant’s criminal background, but only if the there was “a legitimate business reason” to do so. Jobs involving kids, the disabled or the elderly would not be subject to the legislation, nor would law enforcement jobs.

As Thompson goes on to point out, “the bill does authorize the city Office of Civil Rights to investigate complaints of discrimination brought by people turned down for a job solely because of their criminal history. The office could fine employers as much as $750 for a second offense and $1,000 for subsequent violations.”

According to Harrell, this fine structure was met by a push back from local business interest, who would prefer to see a one-year moratorium on any fines. During Wednesday’s committee meeting councilmember Sally Bagshaw sought to reduce the fines to $250 and $500, respectively.

A debate, via another Bagshaw amendment to the legislation, also erupted over use of the word “Will” vs. “May” - in a situation Harrell predicted during his interview with Seattle Weekly Wednesday afternoon. When defining what constitutes a “legitimate business reason” for denying someone employment, Harrell’s version of the legislation states that such a situation exists when an employer believes the applicant’s criminal history “WILL have a negative impact on the employee’s or applicant’s fitness or ability to perform the position sought or held, or 2. WILL harm or cause injury to people, property, or business assets ...”

Bagshaw sought to have Harrell’s wills changed to “may” - a move that would have allowed employers far more wiggle room in complying with the legislation. According to Harrell, it was also a move that would have left the legislation without much punch, and one he said this morning he was firmly against. The amendment received a 3-3 vote, which equates to a failure – as ties do not go to the runner in the world of city council committees.

Ultimately, the Public Safety, Civil Rights and Technology passed Harrell’s version of the bill 5-0, with one absent vote. Next up comes a full council vote. Harrell tells Seattle Weekly he’s confident he has the votes to pass it.

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