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‘Ban-the-box’ bill advanced by Senate panel

Sen. Raymond Lesniak, above, (D-Union), is sponsoring the 'ban-the-box' bill.-(AARON HOUSTON)

A Senate panel voted Thursday to release a bill that would limit employers from conducting criminal background checks on job applicants until after an offer of conditional employment has already been made.Sponsored by state Sens. Sandra Cunningham (D-Jersey City), Raymond Lesniak (D-Union) and Teresa Ruiz (D-Newark), “The Opportunity to Compete Act,” which is also known as “ban-the-box,” was advanced by the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee with nine votes in the affirmative.

Cunningham said Thursday that by delaying an employer’s inquiry into an applicant’s potential criminal past until after a conditional offer has been made, candidates are not immediately written off and instead given an “opportunity to tell their story.” She added that she believes the bill has the ability to “save lives.”

“People who make mistakes should not face a lifetime of economic hardship,” Cunningham said in a statement following the vote. “We need to make sure that we do all we can to assist people with conviction histories to reintegrate into the community so they can provide for their families and themselves. This bill gives applicants with a blemish on their record the opportunity to make a real impression and not have their applications discarded because they checked a box.”

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Under the bill, employers would be prohibited from asking an applicant about his or her criminal record until after a first interview, either in-person or by other means, has already been conducted, unless the applicant voluntarily discloses it.

The legislation also stops employers from publishing job advertisements stipulating that applicants with criminal records will not be considered. Certain exceptions will be granted to positions in law enforcement, homeland security, emergency management, the judicial system and others that by law either require a background check or preclude applicants with criminal records.

As long as the refusal is in compliance with other laws and regulations already on the books, employers still will have the ability to deny employment to an applicant based on the status of his criminal record.

“This bill gives residents who have made mistakes in their life a real chance at securing a job and becoming contributing members of society,” Lesniak added in a statement. “Without these common sense protections, many employers will simply exclude talented applicants before they are given a chance to make a solid impression.”

A similar bill that business groups staunchly opposed had been initially introduced and released by an Assembly panel back in December but was later withdrawn. The current version was reintroduced earlier this year.

Though business groups remained largely in opposition to the measure Thursday, most applauded the sponsors’ work to address some of their earlier concerns in the latest draft.

In submitted testimony to the committee, David Brogan, first vice president for the New Jersey Business and Industry Association, said that while the current bill is “much less onerous than any previous version,” it still does not address the business community’s primary concern of when an employer can inquire about an applicant’s criminal history.

Brogan said the legislation would be better served if it just removed the so-called box altogether.

“Throughout the negotiating process, NJBIA has maintained that we would support a simple ‘ban-the-box’ bill in which employment applications no longer ask about an applicant’s criminal background,” Brogan said. “This bill goes further in that it prohibits an employer from requesting information about an applicant’s criminal record until after the completion of the first interview.”


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