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Employers, felons fight over hiring bill

By   /   October 24, 2011  /   No Comments

By Kirsten Adshead | Wisconsin Reporter

MADISON — A small business owner is looking to expand the firm, add a position or two.

She moves through the stack of applications and completes the interviews.

Now, it’s hiring time.

Does she go with the candidate with more education or the one with more experience? Or should she hire the felon who served 12 years for armed robbery? Sometimes those questions come up simultaneously.

Under state law, that small business owner cannot consider a job applicant’s felony conviction unless the crime substantially relates to the position being filled.

A  bill that received a public hearing Monday before the Senate Labor, Public Safety and Urban Affairs Committee aims to eliminate the 34-year-old statute protecting felons from employment discrimination. The Senate bill would allow employers to consider a felon’s criminal history, regardless of the specifics of the crime.

Supporters of Senate Bill 207 contend employers should have the right to choose whom they want to hire, particularly when it comes to workplace safety.

Critics of the measure assert society benefits when felons are allowed to move beyond their criminal pasts.

Character test

“Employers are faced with the position of addressing whether they want to hire someone who has a felony conviction record that is perhaps very egregious — rape, violations such as molestation or murder,” said attorney Thomas Hruz, representing the Wisconsin Civil Justice Council, which business organizations formed to protect businesses from litigation.

“It might not be substantially related to the job they are looking to fill, but as a matter of just character and determination of the safety of their employees and customers, they might make a decision that has no malice to it other than a concern that they would rather hire someone who has not been convicted of such crimes, as opposed to someone who has,” Hruz said.

Criminal-rehabilitation advocates say felons shouldn’t be punished in perpetuity, and that keeping convicts on the streets, instead of in jobs, helps no one.

“If you’ve got guys coming out trying to be prosperous, productive and conducive to society, trying to give back to the community and make their life right, give them a chance,” said Madison resident John Miller.

Miller was convicted of felony burglary and spent 14 years in prison before being released in 2010. He works as a chef but said he talks to people weekly who are struggling to find work.

Competitive job market

Similar legislation has come up for debate, but it has stalled in previous sessions of the Legislature.

With the economy languishing, however, and unemployment in Wisconsin at 7.8 percent in September, employment-related legislation is getting increased scrutiny, particularly because of Gov. Scott Walker’s “Wisconsin is open for business” motto and his call for a special session on job creation.

By some workforce estimates, the jobless rate for convicted felon ranges from 25 percent to 40 percent. The Center for Economic and Policy Research, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit economic think tank, estimated that as many as 14 million working-age ex-offenders were in the United States in 2008.

“Because a prison record or felony conviction greatly lowers ex-offenders’ prospects in the labor market, we estimate that this large population lowered the total male employment rate that year by 1.5 to 1.7 percentage points,” the center’s report, “Ex-Offenders in the Labor Market” states.

The report estimates that in gross domestic product terms, these reductions in employment cost the U.S. economy between $57 billion and $65 billion in lost output.

Pros and cons

Supporters of the Senate bill, typically representing business groups, argue that:

  • Wisconsin is one of five states that includes criminals as part of its employment-discrimination statute, which puts the Badger State at a competitive disadvantage for bringing jobs home.
  • The current law, which allows discrimination against felons if the conviction is substantially related to the position being filled, is vague and nebulous in its application.
  • The current law makes employers potentially liable to lawsuits in a number of instances, including not hiring a felon in favor of another applicant.
  • Employers still would be legally banned from having a blanket policy of not hiring felons.

Opponents of the bill, often representing criminal-rehabilitation programs, argue that:

  • Felons have paid their debt to society by serving a prison sentence.
  • Felons are a reality to be dealt with — either they can be busy working, contributing to society and the tax base, or they can be on the street, in poverty, draining society.
  • Felons can’t even get in the door to compete for jobs because, thanks to Wisconsin’s Consolidated Court Automation Program, would-be employers can find out applicants’ criminal background online.

SB 207 had not been scheduled for a vote as of Monday.

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