Understand Ban the Box

Four Things a City Workgroup Should Sort Out About “Ban the Box”

MAYOR CHARLIE HALES walked into council chambers late last month ready to improve the lives of Portlanders with criminal records.

After months of discussion with advocates and business owners, Hales was raring to expand a city policy that dictates when employers can ask about applicants’ criminal histories—a suggestion many agree will help ex-convicts get jobs. An ordinance was all drawn up, and Hales parried the suggestions of Commissioners Amanda Fritz and Dan Saltzman, who thought a workgroup should be convened to tweak the law.

“It’s a fairly straightforward policy call,” the mayor told Fritz at the March 25 hearing. He figured the minutiae could be worked out once the “bare outlines” were enshrined in city code.

Then something interesting happened. One by one, a group of business representatives started criticizing the proposed ordinance. In particular, staffers at the Portland Business Alliance (PBA) and Oregon Restaurant and Lodging Association (ORLA) thought the city had pushed back criminal inquiries too far—after an applicant had already been offered the job.

“We are growing more and more concerned, frankly, with what we see before us,” said Marion Haynes, head government affairs staffer at the PBA. She went on to cite problems with the ordinance’s timing, and said the verbiage was overly protective to applicants.

And now? We’re getting a workgroup.

Hales closed the meeting by announcing he’d take a month or so to let interested parties hash out the “ban the box” law, so named because similar policies around the country prohibit the boxes that applicants must check if they have a criminal past.

It’s a foregone conclusion that Portland will adopt some form of the law. Everyone agrees it would help applicants shed the stigma of past mistakes long enough for an employer to get an honest take on their qualifications.

But there are questions. In particular, the workgroup Hales convenes might want to look at these four things.

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