Discussed in committee: Bill protecting job applicants with criminal history

TRENTON – A state Senate panel heard debate Thursday regarding legislation that proponents say seeks to provide people with criminal histories certain protections while seeking employment.

The Opportunity to Compete Act, S2586, would prohibit an employer from conducting a criminal background check on job seekers during the “pre-application and application process,” according to the proposal. The application process begins when an applicant inquires about the position and ends when a potential employer gives a conditional offer.

Additionally, under the proposal, the pre-application period precedes the application process and includes the recruitment and solicitation of candidates. Employers would only be able to inquire about a person’s criminal history once a candidate receives a conditional job offer.

The Opportunity to Compete Act is sponsored by Sens. Sandra Cunningham (D-31) and Teresa Ruiz (D-29). It was brought to the table in committee for discussion only.

The bill was debated in the Senate Labor Committee, where proponents of the proposal said the bill doesn’t seek to give people with criminal histories a leg up over other job seekers, rather it aims to afford people with criminal pasts “a fair chance at employment,” they argued.

Cornell Brooks, president and CEO of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, told lawmakers that “one out of every four adults, most of whom never committed a violent act,” hold a criminal record.

“It is statistically accurate to say that nearly everyone knows someone with a criminal record,” he said, adding the majority of the records are for minor offenses that amount to “long-ago mistakes” that come back to haunt people for decades.

“If you check the box honestly,” he said, referring to the question on job applications inquiring whether a candidate has ever been convicted of a crime, then “the blunt action of the employer in many instances” is to throw the application in the garbage, he said.

Opponents argue the proposal goes too far in its attempt to offer people with criminal histories a fair shake.

“It should be noted that [the bill] does not merely prohibit employers from asking about convictions and arrests on job applications. Instead, the legislation requires employers to wait until a conditional offer has been made to ask about all offenses, including very serious offenses like attempted murder, homicide, arson [and] weapons possessions,” reads written testimony from the New Jersey Business and Industry Association.

“By the time an employer makes a conditional offer of employment, he or she has likely brought a candidate into the workplace multiple times without the ability to inquire about crimes that could have safety and security implications for other workers,” it reads.

Discussed in committee: Bill protecting job applicants with criminal history