Boxed In: How a Criminal Record Keeps You Unemployed For Life
This article was reported in partnership with the Investigative Fund of the Nation Institute.
Luis Rivera had some peace of mind for about five months, from late fall of 2010 through early spring of the following year. That’s the closest thing he’s seen to financial stability in more than twenty years.
“I got hired for a wonderful job. It was a clerk/porter/doorman position at a high-rise classical building in the East Village,” he recalls wistfully. Rivera, 44, has a wife of twenty-five years and three teenage daughters. They live up in East Harlem, where the Puerto Rican–born New Yorker grew up and has spent much of his life. He’s ferociously proud of his marriage and children; his back straightens and his tone turns serious when he talks about his family, like a man who’s managed to achieve something he’s been told he can’t accomplish. Yet looking back on those five months as a jack-of-all-services for wealthy downtown hipsters, Rivera still gets excited about an opportunity that tore him away from home at all hours.
“When they needed somebody, they would call me in the middle of the night and I would say, ‘Yes!’ Because I needed a job. And the pay was excellent,” he brags, pointing to his $17 hourly wage for part-time work. “I was next to be hired in a position there permanently.”
The new position held promise that Rivera could finally work just one legit job—on the books, with steady hours and a steady paycheck—rather than hustling to piece together part-time informal work, as he’s done his entire adult life. But that promise hadn’t yet been realized. He was still at the mercy of his employer’s whims. If they called, he worked; if not, he didn’t. So when the superintendent of a building across the street mentioned that his crew was looking for part-time help as well, Rivera put in his name. While applying, he was honest to a fault.
“I made the mistake of trusting,” Rivera says now, shrugging. “I explained to this guy that I have a record from 1990-something. But I explained that I paid the price. I’m clean—gimme a chance. He gave me his word of honor that he would not tell.” But word travels fast when you’re an ex-con. Suddenly, the upscale building at which Rivera hoped to build a future stopped giving him shifts at all.
“So I made a phone call and asked to speak to them,” he explains. He says his boss told him, “We found out you have a record. And you can’t work here, due to the fact that this is a fancy place—anything could happen.”
At age 22, Rivera says, he committed a burglary in the Bronx. He was a lousy criminal and soon got caught. The judge didn’t make him serve any time, just released him to his parents’ custody and gave him five years of probation. Within two years, he’d earned release from probation as well. But the conviction has nonetheless stalked him ever since. “Twenty years later, it’s still there.”
Rivera is part of an uncounted population of formerly convicted or incarcerated people trying to find work in a hostile economy. They are failing, by and large, thanks to the illegal but still widespread practice of employers rejecting applicants or firing workers solely because they have criminal records. A growing movement is pushing states to “ban the box,” or more closely regulate when and how employers can ask about criminal records on job applications. The movement has logged some victories: in October, Target, the nation’s second-largest retailer, announced that it would stop asking the question of prospective employees. The move comes after Target’s home state of Minnesota passed “ban the box” legislation—one of ten states to do so, according to the National Employment Law Project (NELP). But the way that many companies screen for criminal records is already barred by federal law.
Back in 1987, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission declared that blanket bans on hiring people with criminal records were a Civil Rights Act violation. The EEOC noted that the law bars not only overt bias based on protected categories like race, but also seemingly neutral policies that have the effect of reinforcing racial disparities So it told employers that they can consider criminal records only as one factor in hiring, and then only when the conviction is directly related to the work. But Congress is most responsible for undermining this guidance. Following 9/11, lawmakers issued blanket bans on former felons working in a broad range of transportation jobs. States followed suit, and the list of banned occupations grew exponentially: private security guards, nursing home aides, just about any job involving kids. Former felons are now categorically barred from working in more than 800 occupations because of laws and licensing rules, one study estimates.
Partly in reaction to this growing list, and partly in response to the simultaneous explosion of the background check industry, the EEOC issued an updated guidance in 2012. The new guidance didn’t change the core idea—that blanket hiring bans based on criminal records have a disproportionate impact on black and Latino workers and thus violate the Civil Rights Act; instead, it offered employers updated details on how to stay on the right side of the law. In sum: if you conduct background checks, your hiring systems must include a granular method of confirming their accuracy and considering the specifics of a person’s case. The experience Rivera describes is just the sort that would not pass muster.
This summer, the EEOC showed its willingness to enforce those rules. In June, the watchdog filed separate suits against BMW and Dollar General. BMW’s subcontracted hiring firm had imposed a blanket ban that not only affected new hires but led to the firing of many longtime employees. In Dollar General’s case, one of the plaintiffs had been denied work because of a six-year-old conviction, which drew the EEOC’s scrutiny not only because the practice is illegal, but also because the woman had previously worked for a different retailer in the same type of job without incident. “That’s huge,” says Maurice Emsellem of the National Employment Law Project. “The guidance is one thing, but all this activity surrounding the guidance—that shows they’re enforcing it.”
If so, the EEOC has got its work cut out for it. There’s no firm number on the population of workers with criminal records, but the NELP estimates that there were 65 million in 2010—a stunning 28 percent of the adult population. In 2006, the Justice Department spitballed the number at 30 percent of working-age adults. A great many of these people have faced background checks. In explaining its updated guidance last year, the EEOC cited a 2010 study showing that 92 percent of large employers run background checks.
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