Not every employer in Richmond thinks it’s a good idea to turn a blind eye to a job applicant’s criminal past.
Mike Mccarty, CEO of Safe Hiring Solutions, a nationwide company that performs background and criminal checks says, “That’s frightening. You’re taking away a lot of choice from employers.” Nevertheless, that’s what the city of Richmond has done with a new ordinance that went into effect this month. Businesses that hold contracts with the city or lease land from the city can no longer run criminal background checks on potential employees.
Forty-eight businesses in Richmond, including MetroPCS, La Raza Market, and U-Haul of Richmond have shown their support for the new ordinance by signing a pledge to employ people regardless of criminal history. “The need to hire folks (formerly incarcerated) is really here. Businesses understand this,” says Judith Morgan, Richmond President of the Chamber of Commerce. But, Morgan says, business owners also have concerns, “Basically, I think this ordinance has gone above and beyond. It is too restrictive.”
Jovanka Beckles, the Richmond Councilwoman who sponsored the ordinance which passed on July 30th, says it will “give people hope for a different life.”
According to numbers from the Safe Return Project, an initiative committed to helping prisoners reenter their community, unemployment in the city is estimated at 11.6 percent, while among ex-convicts it is estimated at more than 70 percent.
The Richmond ordinance, which is broader than other “ban the box” laws in cities and states across the country, prevents employers from accessing the criminal histories of job applicants even after they are hired. The Richmond Police Department is working with the Richmond city manager and Safe Return to come up with criteria for “sensitive” positions. Once these positions are identified, applicants will go through a screening process with the RPD, and they will make the final determination about whether a person’s criminal past is relevant to the job.
To employers concerned that they will no longer be able to evaluate employee information for themselves, LaVern Vaughn of Safe Return says, “Why can’t you take the Richmond police department’s word for who is suitable for a job?” The regulatory unit of the RPD already does employee background checks for highly regulated businesses such as marijuana dispensaries, taxicabs, and alcohol purveyors.
“In reality, it is working,” Richmond Police Captain Mark Gagan says of the background checks they already conduct for these businesses.
Coucilwoman Beckles says the $18-$25 million Richmond spends annually on goods and services will lead to jobs. But, many construction companies that hold large contracts with the city, such as Ghilloti Bros., Inc. out of San Rafael, already refrain from asking for a job applicant’s criminal background.
Kaiser Permanente, the second-largest non-governmental employer in Richmond, is reviewing its hiring practices to see which positions will be affected by the ordinance. “Many of our staff engage with vulnerable populations, including children, the elderly and other groups,” and thus would fall into the category of a “sensitive” position, Kaiser spokesperson Marc Brown wrote in a statement.
Vaughn says the ordinance may not lead to “huge numbers of jobs” in Richmond, but she says it will help keep the city accountable and prevent discrimination.
“If we help one person—one person—rebuild their life and take care of their family, that is enough for me,” Vaughn says.
Sally Schilling contributed to the reporting of this article.
A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the date of Kaiser’s statement. The error was corrected and Richmond Confidential regrets the mistake.