If you’ve broken the law, Pennsylvania employers can find out.
Their job applications may contain questions asking specifically about a criminal record, and they may perform background checks that can unearth a job hopeful’s past arrests and convictions.
Alternatively, some states and municipalities have turned to “ban the box” laws that offer past offenders at least partial protection from admission to, or discovery of, a criminal record during the job application process.
The human relations and payroll processing firm PayCor says “ban the box” legislation “prohibits employers from requesting a potential employee’s criminal history on a job application in certain states and localities. Some laws forbid a company from asking if the candidate was ever sentenced for a crime until a specific time in the hiring process, such as during an interview or after a conditional offer of employment.”
In Pennsylvania, though, only Pittsburgh and Philadelphia have adopted such policies.
In the former city, contractors or vendors doing business with Pittsburgh may not do a criminal background check before an applicant is otherwise deemed qualified.
Philadelphia, meanwhile, requires all employers with at least one employee to refrain from any criminal background check prior to a conditional job offer.
Should Lawrence County — or perhaps, the commonwealth as a whole — extend such protections as well to the formerly incarcerated? After all, an April 2021 report from the Brookings Institution noted that ex-offenders having jobs “has been shown to reduce recidivism, and individuals are less likely to commit crimes when they have stable, full-time employment.”
“I think it’s something that really needs to be looked at because right now, when someone leaves prison or has a criminal conviction, a lot of times it holds them back from getting employment,” state Rep. Chris Sainato, D-Lawrence, said. “Right now, with the severe labor shortage we see in our country, even Lawrence County — you’re looking for workers, and this is an opportunity for those who made a mistake in their lives to get gainful employment.
“Studies have shown when prisoners go to work and become productive citizens, they don’t go back to prison.”
Sainato said that although getting hired may depend on the applicant’s offense, he realizes that anyone can make a mistake.
“People make mistakes in their lives and we need to give them an opportunity to show that they can be productive citizens, especially right now, when you can’t find employees.”
State Rep. Aaron Bernstine, R-Butler/Beaver/Lawrence, also referenced studies that show when formerly incarcerated people have a job, the recidivism rate is significantly lower than when they don’t have a job.
“It’s important that when people get out of jail, or when people have served their debt to society, that they come back into society and that they’re productive members of society, and we need to do everything we can do to make sure that happens,” he said. “I think anything we can do to get people into the workforce is a positive.”
Still, he realizes that employers also have skin in the hiring game.
“Employers need to be able to have information to determine what type of employees that they want to hire,” Bernstine said. “Right now, what they’re looking for is people who are willing to come to work and do the job that’s asked of them and earn a good wage. Employers, to me, understand that some people have a past but have paid their debt to society.
“The concern I have with the Ban the Box thing is that I do think that employers should have as much information as they need in order to hire the types of employees that they would like. That’s kind of the danger when you’re looking at legislation, because you don’t know what it is yet until it’s introduced or done.”
He believes that honest conversation between job applicants and potential employers is key.
“One of the things that employers also are looking for is honesty,” Bernstine said. “And people are having that conversation, saying, ‘Hey, I made mistakes in the past but here’s what I’ve done to overcome them and I’m committed to doing the job.’
“I think that employers are willing to engage with folks who are excited to come to work and do the job that’s asked of them, and I trust our employers and small business owners to make the decisions that are best for them and their companies. Employers are doing the things that are best for their businesses, and we ought to let them have the autonomy to do so.”