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Bills aim to aid job seekers with criminal history

UPDATED: Fri., March 24, 2017, 9:42 p.m.

OLYMPIA – Tarra Simmons says she knows all too well what it’s like to have to check a box on a job application that reveals her criminal history to an employer before she has a chance to explain.

“I was at the lowest point in my life,” she told the Associated Press.

Simmons, 39, said she began using methamphetamines after her father’s death in 2010. After 10 months of using drugs, she said, she was convicted of drug- and theft-related charges and went to prison. She says the hardest thing since has been getting a job.

State lawmakers are considering measures in the House and the Senate that would prohibit certain employers from inquiring about an applicant’s criminal history until after the employer determines if they’re otherwise qualified for the job.

The Washington attorney general’s office would enforce the new rule by imposing warnings and fines of as much as $1,000 for each violation. Exceptions would include jobs in law enforcement, state agencies, schools and other businesses that supervise children, persons with disabilities and vulnerable adults.

After Simmons’ release in 2013, she said, she applied to nearly 10 jobs every day for almost a year and got nowhere.

“I felt so defeated being denied over and over, and know I’m not the only one this happens to,” said Simmons, who was a registered nurse before she went to prison.

According to the Washington State Patrol, more than a million people in Washington state have a criminal record.

Senate Bill 5312 cleared the state Senate by one vote earlier this month and now heads to a committee for consideration before a key deadline next week. A House bill is also being considered.

Simmons attended a hearing for the Senate bill earlier this week and spoke about her past drug addiction, and how she has turned her life around and is expected to graduate with a law degree from the Seattle University School of Law in May.

“I wanted to become a lawyer so I could knock down employment barriers for people like me who’ve been incarcerated,” she said.

Republican Rep. Liz Pike, a member of the House Labor & Workplace Standards Committee, called Simmons a “gold-plated million-dollar example of why everybody deserves a second chance.”

However, Pike said she was concerned about incentivizing others who haven’t transitioned back into society as well as Simmons.

“The people that want to get jobs are out there applying for jobs,” Simmons responded.

Democratic Rep. Mike Sells said he thinks the bill is “an issue of fairness.”

“People, after they served their time, should be able to at least get in the door for an interview,” Sells said. “After that, the companies can dig out anything they want.”

Since 2015, advocates have urged the Washington state Legislature to “Ban the Box,” a term coined by civil rights groups and advocates to remove the check box from job applications to allow employers to consider job candidate’s qualifications based on their abilities rather than their criminal background.

Nationwide, over 150 cities and counties have adopted the concept, according to the National Employment Law Project. And the National Conference of State Legislatures says 11 states are considering “Ban the Box” legislation this year and 20 states have already enacted such laws.

Seattle passed an ordinance in 2013 to limit criminal history inquiries and background checks until candidates have been evaluated on qualifications.

“We need to change how we see people who’ve made a mistake,” Simmons said.