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Calif. advances bill to restrain criminal background checks

The California State Senate's Judiciary Committee approved revisions to a criminal background check designed to help people with convictions get hired.

A California bill designed to curb criminal background checks in employment was approved by the state's Senate Judiciary Committee this week without its most ambitious goal after business groups opposed it. The Fair Chance Act of 2023 had sought a blanket ban on criminal background checks except where already required by law.

Nonetheless, the bill, which advanced with an 8-2 vote, builds upon the state's Fair Chance Act of 2018 with new provisions to help people with criminal convictions get hired. It heads to the Senate Appropriations Committee and may still see amendments, but the Judiciary Committee vote is a significant step forward to adoption.

The bill includes changes to the 2018 law, including prohibiting employers from posting job advertisements asking people with criminal records not to apply. If an employer pays a fine for violating provisions of the law, the job seeker who filed the complaint may be eligible for half the fine payment.

Sen. Lola Smallwood-Cuevas, a Democrat in Los Angeles and the bill sponsor, led the effort to revise the six-year-old Fair Chance Act, arguing that convictions were still a significant barrier for people to rejoin the workforce.

The legislation initially proposed to ban criminal background checks for all jobs unless the law specifically required them, such as for school jobs. Business opponents argued that the law's broad ban on criminal background checks would affect other sensitive positions, including jobs that involve working with children or handling consumer financial information.

The 2018 bill prohibits employers from asking job candidates about their conviction history before making a job offer. The goal of the law is to encourage employers to consider job candidates on their merits.

Criminal background checks and nexus

The earlier bill also required employers to show a "nexus," or a connection between a job and a past conviction. For someone convicted of DUI a decade ago, for example, employers would have to establish, "What is the relationship between a DUI [conviction] and someone who is going to be sitting at a desk as a concierge?" said Sabina Crocette, a senior staff attorney at Legal Aid at Work. This San Francisco-based nonprofit organization assists people on workplace rights issues.

What is the relationship between a DUI [conviction] and someone who is going to be sitting at a desk as a concierge?
Sabina CrocetteSenior staff attorney, Legal Aid at Work

The changes in the 2023 proposal "require greater transparency and accountability from employers when they deny employment based on an applicant's conviction history," said Zach Gautier-Klos, a policy attorney at Root and Rebound, which helps incarcerated people reenter society and is based in Oakland, Calif.

He said one example of this transparency is employers "would have to put in writing the individualized assessment they did and the specific justification they used to deny an applicant employment."

More than seven million Californians have a criminal record and face employment and housing challenges, Smallwood-Cuevas said at the committee's hearing this week. "Employment after incarceration is key to preventing recidivism and rebuilding social networks that provide stability and deter criminal activity."

Patrick Thibodeau covers HCM and ERP technologies for TechTarget Editorial. He's worked for more than two decades as an enterprise IT reporter.

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