BACK IN MARCH, I would have sworn the job prospects for ex-convicts in Portland would be the sunniest in the state by now.
At the time, Mayor Charlie Hales was raring to push through a new "ban the box" policy he'd talked up for months. The law Hales had in mind would have strictly limited most employers' ability to ask about criminal records until after they'd offered someone a job.
The mayor was so enthused that he pressed his city council colleagues to push through the policy despite their lingering qualms—the fine points of the law could be worked out later, he said. Then he reversed, backing off in the face of outcry from business groups ["Understand the Box," News, April 1].
Now, half a year later, it seems distinctly possible Portland won't take up the policy at all. That's a shame.
Sure, state legislators just pushed through their own form of "ban the box"—the shorthand given to the sorts of laws that eliminate the checkboxes on job applications asking about criminal history. That means ex-convicts in Portland are already somewhat shielded from the sort of inquiries that can lead to early and unfair stereotyping.
The problem is: Lawmakers balked at the same arguments from business groups that wore down Hales in March. The legislation that goes into effect January 1 is a dilution of the law that advocates like the Urban League of Portland and National Employment Law Project say is necessary.
The most important difference comes down to when employers may ask about a record. Under the state law, inquiries about your criminal past have to be left off an application, but there's nothing stopping employers from making it the very first question out of an interviewer's mouth. That makes it a lot harder to get an unbiased picture of a job candidate.
The policy Portland was floating in March would have pushed questions about criminal record until after the interview process, to when a conditional offer was made. The possibility infuriated the Portland Business Alliance (PBA) and Oregon Restaurant and Lodging Association (ORLA), but it's considered by advocates to be the strongest possible protection against unfair consideration.
This thing has eaten up plenty of city resources. Following the March hearing, city staffers spent untold hours in a special workgroup to tweak the law, and Hales' office finally put the proposal on the August 19 city council agenda. Then it disappeared.
"This is a little murky now," says Josh Alpert, Hales' chief of staff. There are uncertainties about how to enforce a Portland-only law, he says, though the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries says it'd be happy to do so. And there are the continued protestations of the PBA and ORLA, neither of which responded to my requests for comment. "We're just trying to take all that into account," Alpert says.
But others in city hall say the issue's not likely to re-emerge any time soon, which— again—is a shame.
"What I'm hearing is let's test drive [the state law] and see if it changes things for the better," says City Commissioner Nick Fish. "The city took the lead and forced a statewide conversation."