Bill restricts criminal background checks in hiring for state jobs

Damir Islam has applied to over 400 entry-level jobs over the last 6 months, and is still jobless.

Islam blames his bad luck on his drug conviction and the dreaded, “Have you ever been convicted of a felony?” question that has appeared on every application – not on the state’s 9.2 percent unemployment rate.

“I am not even getting interviews at Dunkin’ Donuts or Olive Garden. I know if I didn’t check that I would have been hired somewhere by now.” he said.

A bill unanimously passed by the State House of Representatives Wednesday would bar state hiring managers from asking the question or researching criminal backgrounds until the last step of the hiring process.

Current law allows the question to be asked now on the application for both private and state jobs. Employers are not allowed to discriminate based on an applicant’s checking “yes,” but advocates say it’s hard to show that the rule is being broken.

“Employers are using this to screen applications. A lot of cases people don’t know they are being discriminated against because they never make it past this question,” said Sarah Diamond, co-chair of A Better Way Foundation’s Clean Slate Committee.

Better Way estimates there are 200,000 Connecticut felons, and says this bill will help open state jobs to these residents.

“This conviction should be invisible to all employers,” said Sen. Edith Prague, D-Columbia, co-chairman of the Labor Committee. “They should have a clean record after they do their time.”

“Now is not the time to make getting a job for felons twice as difficult,” said Sen. Anthony Guglielmo, R-Stafford, senate ranking Republican on the Labor Committee.

The bill will only affect the state employment vetting process, not private industry. The state has about 55,000 state employees, and two exceptions allow prior convictions to be considered in the application process, including law enforcement agencies and licensing of mortgage lenders.

This bill does not strip the state’s right to do a background check for these position, but moves when the question and check is done from the first step until after the interview process. Early opposition to the bill was raised during a public hearing on the proposal because it would forbid state hiring managers from conducting a background check until after an offer had been made, which the Office of Policy and Management and a few lawmakers said was too late in the process.

To rally support for the bill, it was amended to allow the background check one step before an offer is made.

“We are trying to find a balanced approach.” said Rep. Timothy O’Brien, D-New Britain.

The bill now heads to the Senate. Senate President Pro Tem Donald E. Williams, Jr., D-Brooklyn, said while the bill has merit he cannot promise the bill would be raised for a vote before the close of the legislative session in less than two weeks.

If passed into law, Connecticut would join Minnesota, Kansas and New Mexico in restricting state background checks. In Minnesota, private businesses are also restricted until a job offer has been made in asking the question.

In Connecticut, four cities – including Bridgeport, Hartford and New Haven – have removed the question from their employment applications.

And Islam said he wasted no time when he heard Hartford doesn’t ask, and immediately applied to become a firefighter.

“I’ve always wanted to be a firefighter. I would do that at a drop of a hat if get an offer,” he said.