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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane City Council may ban businesses from asking for job seekers’ criminal backgrounds on applications

Carmen Pacheco-Jones, right, talks with her clients, including Tiffany McCracken, right, and Tammara Shoulders, center, in a class called Essentials, where she teaches groups of women a variety of life skills, shown Tuesday at the YWCA in Spokane. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

With her five children scattered in foster homes and a drug addiction she picked up as a teenager, Carmen Pacheco-Jones chose incarceration.

“I knew I couldn’t do it by myself, and I had to start somewhere,” Pacheco-Jones said. “So I decided to just turn myself in.”

She spent two months in a Yakima County Jail withdrawing from the physical effects of years of drug abuse. After seeking treatment, earning a degree from Whitworth University and winning back her family, Pacheco-Jones faced another decision: Whether to check the box on job applications indicating her previous felony convictions.

“I was afraid,” she said. “I felt like, with the criminal convictions, no one was going to hire me.”

The Spokane City Council will consider on Monday an extension of the so-called “ban the box” policy that would apply to private employers within city limits, after eliminating the question about prior criminal history from applications for public employment three years ago. Supporters, including Pacheco-Jones and advocacy groups in town, argue current hiring practices unfairly discriminate against qualified employees and perpetuate a cycle of poverty that leads to more crime. But some city council members are hesitant to give the law full support given the Washington Legislature’s movement toward enacting a policy that would apply statewide.

Because of the concern about her criminal past, which included nonviolent felonies to support her addiction, Pacheco-Jones instead worked for two years as an AmeriCorps volunteer, eventually landing her position assisting women who are victims of domestic violence through the Community Colleges of Spokane. She spent Tuesday afternoon with a half-dozen women, many of whom said they, too, had trouble locating jobs because of past criminal convictions.

“Not everybody can find back doors into a system that is designed to keep you out,” Pacheco-Jones said.

Pacheco-Jones has been working with a group called “I Did the Time” that pushes for passage of both state and local policies banning “the box,” named colloquially for the check mark on job applications indicating criminal history. Layne Pavey, a founder of the organization and a previously convicted felon herself, said a local ordinance is needed, given the centralized location for services for previously incarcerated persons in Spokane.

“Felons flock to this area, because this is where the opportunities are,” Pavey told a meeting of Spokane’s NAACP chapter Monday night, urging the organization to support the legislative change in Spokane.

The legislation, proposed by City Council President Ben Stuckart and City Councilman Breean Beggs, prohibits employers from advertising positions excluding those with criminal records. The law would also require employers to conduct at least one “in-person or video interview” before questioning an applicant about their criminal history, or face a potential $261 fine.

Beggs said he’s working to revise the ordinance to give employers an extra year to comply with the new rules, an attempt to appease some members of the City Council who are concerned businesses will push back against the law.

“As much as possible, I want to make sure we’re giving employers enough time to educate themselves on the policy,” said City Councilwoman Amber Waldref.

The city has been meeting with Greater Spokane Inc., the region’s chamber of commerce, to pitch the ordinance. Todd Mielke, the chief executive of the organization, said board members didn’t have concerns about the council’s goal but disagreed that a law was necessary to achieve it.

“We have asked the city to show us the breadth of the problem,” Mielke said. “We have, right now, the lowest unemployment rate this city has experienced in a long, long time.”

Stuckart said he’s met with dozens of felons leaving jail who are having difficulty finding work, even with the unemployment rate’s recent tumble.

“I would like people to sit down and talk to somebody who has had to mark that box,” Stuckart said. “That is not their experience.”

GSI will not take a position on the city’s law, but does plan to send a letter to the council with its concerns, Mielke said. Those include how the law would affect business recruitment in Spokane, and the preference that employment law be enacted at the state – rather than the local – level, in order to ensure uniform regulations for business that operate outside city limits, he said.

Mayor David Condon, who authorized the city’s removal of the box from applications to work at City Hall in 2014, would also prefer to see the issue handled in Olympia, said Brian Coddington, spokesman for the mayor’s office.

“Typically the mayor’s preference is to have employment issues be handled at the state level, to make sure we create a level playing field,” Coddington said.

Stuckart and Beggs have said they’re working with the region’s state lawmakers to anticipate what action might be taken in the Legislature. A proposal sponsored by Sen. Michael Baumgartner, R-Spokane, that prohibited asking about an applicant’s criminal history “until after the employer initially determines that the applicant is otherwise qualified for the position,” passed narrowly in the state Senate earlier this year.

Critics say the state law doesn’t guarantee a face-to-face interview, as is required under the city’s proposed ordinance. The bill from Baumgartner was rejected in the Democratic-led House of Representatives because it would have done away with more stringent local laws “banning the box,” including those passed in Seattle and Pierce County.

Sen. Andy Billig, D-Spokane, said reviving the bill would be a priority of the Senate’s new Democratic majority, ushered in with the election of Manka Dhinghra to the chamber earlier this month.

Billig said he will push for a version of the law that wouldn’t undo local regulations related to hiring.

“My hope is that we can pass the bill without pre-emption so that if a local community decides they want a local policy, they can do that,” he said. “We’ll have to go through the legislative process and come out with the best bill possible.”

The uncertainty has caused City Councilwoman Candace Mumm, who campaigned this year as a defender not only of neighborhoods but small businesses, to delay a decision on the city law.

“I’m still researching what’s going on at that state level, and what we’re doing here,” Mumm said. “I want to know what the state is up to. I want to make sure that we are doing the right thing in terms of our citizens and our businesses.”

Waldref and City Councilwoman Karen Stratton also said they wanted to ensure the city’s law would work in harmony with any state regulation, though both said they approved of the intent of the law.

“The good thing is, when all is said and done, you’re putting people to work,” said Stratton.

City Councilman Mike Fagan, who frequently breaks with the council’s majority, said he is in support of the city law as long as the yearlong probationary period is in place before businesses are penalized.

“I would prefer that the state take the lead on this, but for whatever reason, it hasn’t been done,” Fagan said. “I think the cost of this, for the employer, definitely outweighs the impact of what we all pay into, and that is the social safety net.”

The council would need five votes to override a potential veto from Condon, who opposed the council’s passage of a law requiring employers to provide sick leave. The council eventually overrode that veto, and the state later passed its own version of the law that will take effect next year in place of the city ordinance.

Coddington said Tuesday the mayor is still reviewing the “ban the box” legislation and speaking with council members about the final version of the proposal.

Pacheco-Jones said she understood there would be some business hesitancy toward the policy but passing the law would allow the city to beat back the stigma created by that little box that gives her and her students so much grief.

“I think this was originally a policy to protect good people from bad people,” she said. “But can we just look at people as reformed, or hold them to the same esteem as we hold ourselves? Don’t we want to see them succeed?”