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New bill bars employers from asking about criminal records

ST. PAUL — State lawmakers have passed legislation that would bar many employers from asking job applicants if they have a criminal record in the early stages of the hiring process.

Gov. Mark Dayton is expected to sign the bill, which would "ban the box," on many applications. If so, the law would go into effect in January.

Among those the law would help is Bruce Craig of Minneapolis, who has been out of prison for a decade. When it comes to his job prospects, he says it’s as though he never left. Employers often pass him over right away because of his past felonies.

"It still haunts me, ten years later," he said.

Craig’s convictions serious crimes: rape, forgery and theft. But he is sorry for his crimes and contends that at 47 he’s a changed man, something he would like to explain to potential employers.

"I spill my guts," said Craig, who tried to improve himself by taking college courses in prison. "I tell you about me and where I’ve been right up front."

Many employers would reject Craig automatically based on the little box job applicants check to indicate run-ins with the law. By eliminating the box, the legislation could prop open a door to employment for people like Craig.

State and local government agencies in Minnesota already are forbidden from inquiring into a person’s criminal background until the interview or job offer stage. The law would also apply the restriction to many private employers, but exempt some, such as daycare providers.

"Far too often employers are not providing these individuals with a chance even to interview for a job," said Kevin Lindsey, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Human Rights. His office would investigate potential violations of the law.

Lindsey said he respects employers’ needs to decide how much risk they want to take on in hiring someone with a sketchy past.

In the more extreme situations where a candidate has a violent past, Lindsey acknowledges employers have a tough call to make. But he said most crimes are non violent.

"Let’s at least entertain and have the conversation as opposed to making it a categorical no for that individual," Lindsey said.

Starting in 2014, Lindsey’s office will issue warnings to employers who are found to have prematurely removed from consideration candidates based on their criminal backgrounds. If the companies don’t comply with the law, they will be fined up to $500 per violation. Starting in 2015, his office will not issue warnings before issuing employers fines.

The maximum fines will be scaled to the size of the employer.

The Minnesota Chamber of Commerce took a neutral position on the legislation approved this week by the House.

Chamber’s spokesman Ben Gerber said he’s glad the bill shields private employers from civil lawsuits over how they consider applicants’ criminal backgrounds.

But Gerber said employers will still have to deal with some costs. He said that will most likely be the case if an employer has to rewrite a job application.

"A lot of times even a small employer will have an attorney review it and so if they’re going to take something off, they’re still going to want to make sure they’re compliant with it," Gerger said. "That was a concern with a lot of our members."

For other employers, who already save the criminal background questions for the interview phase, the costs will be less cumbersome.

Craig, the ex-felon, said he understands why employers would want to know about the past of someone like him. But he also wants to work and doesn’t want to rely on government handouts. A job, he said, would give him dignity.

"If I ever get it in my head that I’m not worth hiring, I give up," Craig said, "and I do things that are not healthy for me or anybody else."

Article written by Annie Baxter for Minnesota Public Radio,