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Washington House votes to ‘Ban the Box’

UPDATED: Wed., Feb. 7, 2018, 9:33 p.m.

State representatives listen to testimony on the house floor, Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2018, at the Capitol in Olympia, Wash., during the 2018 regular session of the Washington State Legislature. The House approved a bill Wednesday that would ban requests about past criminal history from employment applications. (Ted S. Warren / AP)
State representatives listen to testimony on the house floor, Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2018, at the Capitol in Olympia, Wash., during the 2018 regular session of the Washington State Legislature. The House approved a bill Wednesday that would ban requests about past criminal history from employment applications. (Ted S. Warren / AP)

OLYMPIA – Washington employers wouldn’t be able to have prospective workers fill out an application asking if they’ve been arrested under a bill approved Wednesday by the House.

The Fair Chance Act, more commonly known as the “Ban the Box” bill, passed on a mostly partisan vote after supporters said it was important to give people a second chance and opponents said was unfair to businesses.

Many companies have job applications that ask if a prospective employee has been arrested or convicted of a felony, often by checking a box on the form. If passed by the Senate and signed by Gov. Jay Inslee, this would prevent them from asking about a criminal record on that initial application.

“You have to get through that door. The only way to do it is not to mark that box,” Rep. Sherry Appleton, D-Poulsbo, said. “This is a bill of justice.”

But Rep. Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama, said it wasn’t necessary to change the law because forms typically allow the applicant to explain the circumstances.

“It says ‘Please explain’ right there on the form, right there below the box,” Orcutt said. “What about fairness to the employer?

The bill has exemptions for some jobs, including working unsupervised with children. But there are other jobs not covered by the bill for which it would be inappropriate to hire felons, opponents said. Rep. Michelle Caldier, R-Port Orchard, said a former rapist wouldn’t be hired to work with young women.

“If the crime is such that it would absolutely impact that position, there’s no point in going forward,” Caldier said.

But the new law wouldn’t prevent an employer from doing a background check on any prospective worker, Rep. Marcus Riccelli, D-Spokane, said. “It doesn’t force anyone to hire anyone.”

Rep. Jeff Holy, R-Cheney, agreed that an employer could do something as simple as calling a prospective worker and asking. While he might support a pared down version of the bill, Holy said, the current version “paints with such a broad brush” there’s a potential for harm to some employers.

Prior to voting on the bill, the House narrowly rejected an amendment that would have kept cities like Spokane from having stricter requirements than the state has. The Spokane City Council adopted its own Ban the Box ordinance last November, which also has exemptions for certain jobs and allows a fine for the first offense, although those fines will not be levied in the first year. The state bill allows a warning from the state attorney general for the first offense and a fine on the second offense.

Rep. Matt Manweller, R-Ellensburg, said cities shouldn’t be able to do “an end run around the process” the state sets up. But Rep. Mike Sells, D-Everett, said the state was creating “a floor for somebody to get in the door” and local governments should be able to add to that.