Austin Poised to ‘Ban the Box’

The City Council is expected to approve a jobs ordinance that will push conversations about felony convictions later in the hiring process.

Austin City Council member Greg Casar introduces supporters of a fair chance hiring ordinance Austin employers at a press conference Tuesday, in advance of the council’s vote later in the week.
Hannah McBride
Austin City Council member Greg Casar introduces supporters of a fair chance hiring ordinance Austin employers at a press conference Tuesday, in advance of the council’s vote later in the week.

Update, March 24: After two hours of public testimony, Austin City Council passed the fair chance hiring ordinance, with council members Don Zimmerman and Ellen Troxclair voting against the measure, and Sheri Gallo “off the dais,” or not present to vote.

Original story:

Austin will become the first city in Texas to “ban the box” for both public and private employers, if the City Council approves a new ordinance on Thursday. “Ban the box” refers to removing the box referring to prior felony convictions from job applications, so the issue doesn’t come up at the start of the hiring process.

“This is something that means I get to be considered a human again, legally,” Austinite Jacqueline Conn said Tuesday at a press conference in support of the proposed ordinance.

Conn is part of Second Chance Democrats, a group of formerly incarcerated people and advocates who want to see questions about a job applicant’s criminal history pushed to the end, rather than the beginning, of the hiring process. They gathered at city hall to support the measure, also known as “fair chance” hiring, along with about a dozen elected officials and Democratic Party members.

“On the surface, this is not an ordinance that’s a big deal,” Conn said. “Below the surface, this is something that dramatically shifts the narrative.”

Austin City Council member Greg Casar, who introduced the measure ten months ago, called the press conference a “celebration,” because “we are ready to be the first fair chance hiring city in the South.”

“I believe it’s a landmark civil rights policy and legislation here in the heart of Texas,” Casar said.

Austin Mayor Steve Adler linked the legislation to Austin’s “affordability crisis,” saying the ordinance will allow more Austinites to get jobs so they can afford the city’s rising cost of living.

“You make things more affordable by giving people more money to spend, by enabling people to have good jobs,” he said.

Both the city of Austin and Travis County have fair chance hiring practices in place for public employees. This measure, if passed, will require that private employers in Austin do the same. Adler stressed that the ordinance doesn’t require employers to hire those with criminal records — it only moves those questions to the end of the hiring process. Under the ordinance, employers can only conduct background checks and ask applicants about their criminal history once a job offer has been made.

Nationally, 100 cities and 21 states have adopted some form of fair chance hiring for either public or private employers and contractors, according to the National Employment Law Project. If the Austin City Council passes the measure, it will join a small contingent of both private and public fair chance hiring cities, including Philadelphia, Seattle and San Francisco.

According to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, 2,200 incarcerated people are released in Travis County each year. Federal data shows that 166,000 people were held in Texas prisons and jails in 2014, the most recent year for which data is available.

In 2015, a “ban the box”-type law for state agencies passed in the Texas House but died in the senate. State Representative Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin, who voted for the measure, said he’s hopeful he can work on similar legislation next session.

“Hopefully the state of Texas can follow the city of Austin’s lead,” Rodriguez said.

Hannah McBride, a bike commuter and Topo Chico guzzler, is an editorial fellow at the Observer. Previously, she wrote for the Boston Globe and screened calls for NPR's Car Talk.

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