House lawmakers look to “ban the box”

MONTPELIER — House lawmakers have given their overwhelming endorsement to a bill intended to make it easier for people with criminal histories to find employment.

By a vote of 138 to 5, the House give preliminary approval to a bill that would — for the most part — prohibit employers from inquiring of a prospective employee’s criminal background on an application form.

“The House’s vote to ban the box is a vote for compassion, redemption and opportunity,” House Speaker Shap Smith said after the vote. “The current policy of screening for criminal histories in preliminary job applications puts a barrier in the way of successfully finding employment. By removing this wall, Vermonters will have more opportunities to succeed.”

The bill still has a ways to go, pending a final vote of House lawmakers today and approval by the Senate. If signed into law, Vermont would become the eighth state to “ban the box,” as referred to by advocates such as Dan Barlow, public policy manager for Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility (VBSR).

“VBSR supports this bill because we believe a criminal history should not be a scarlet letter when it comes to a person’s ability to make a living, to find housing and rebuilding their lives,” Barlow said. “We think everyone should have the opportunity to discuss their criminal history with their prospective employer.”

Approximately 70 million people in the United States — and 100,000 in Vermont — have a criminal history. In 2015, Vermont became the 20th state to ban the box for state job applications.

Under the terms of the bill, employers would be prohibited from asking a prospective employee if he or she has a criminal history, with certain exceptions. An employer may ask about specific crimes if those crimes would disqualify the employee under federal or state law, such as a person with an embezzlement conviction applying for a job at a bank.

In that case, the bank may specifically inquire if the applicant has an embezzlement conviction.

Employers would be allowed to ask a prospective employee about this or her criminal history during a subsequent job interview.

The bill received the support of lawmakers who have criminal histories, including Rep. Janssen Willhoit, R-St. Johnsbury, who served jail time for a white-collar conviction.

Rep. Joseph Troiano, D-East Hardwick, who was convicted five years ago on a charge of “noise in the night,” also rose to support the bill.

“I think this does give people an opportunity to get an interview,” Troiano said. “It works for our economy. It works for our folks who might have had an incident with law enforcement years before.”

Republican Rep. Ron Hubert, who, since 1987, has owned the Middle Road Market in his home town of Milton, was one of five lawmakers to vote against the bill, and was its most vocal opponent.

Hubert said he does not inquire of his employee’s criminal records on job applications, and said two of his nine employees have criminal records. Nonetheless, Hubert objected to the state mandating the practice for other employers.

“Having more regulations for people who are doing the right thing is the wrong thing to do,” Hubert said. “My concern with this bill is, once again, we are taking away another tool from the people, the people who drive the economy of this state, and it’s more and more to the point where it’s almost impossible to run your business without a lawyer present.”

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