Boxed In: Activists say conviction question on job application unfairly closes doors 

"I paid my debt. Will I ever be able to move forward?"

Activist Dean Williams is asking Pittsburgh City Council to "Ban the Box."

Photo by Renee Rosensteel.

Activist Dean Williams is asking Pittsburgh City Council to "Ban the Box."

Laid off from her telemarketing job in January 2011 while she was pregnant, 38-year-old Erica Yesko dreaded the idea of having to search for work again. For Yesko, who got into trouble while using drugs 10 years ago, jobs are very, very hard to find. 

"It's not that I don't have the skills, or interviewing skills. I have great customer-service skills," she says. 

Her biggest obstacle is "the box" — the space on many job-application forms that applicants are instructed to check if they've ever been convicted of a felony or a misdemeanor. Filling in that box, says Yesko, keeps her from getting her foot in the door. 

"The whole facial expression on a person changes when they read [the answer to] that question," she says. On one occasion, Yesko recalls, she watched the clerk in a mall clothing store toss her application in a trash can. 

And almost two years after losing the telemarketing position, she's still job-hunting. She lives in a homeless shelter in North Braddock, with her 7-year-old and 1-year-old. 

"It has been 10 years since I've been arrested," she says. "I paid my debt. Will I ever be able to move forward?"

Yesko was one of about 75 people — many with criminal records — who appeared before Pittsburgh City Council last week, urging lawmakers to "ban the box" from job applications. Its presence on hiring forms, they say, keeps those who are trying to live responsibly from being able to do so. 

"When I see that box, it takes me to a place where I see stigma and hopelessness," says Neecy Long, 59. 

Long, who also has 10-year-old convictions related to drug use, says she eventually gave up looking for full-time work as a result. She volunteers now for the Center for Spirituality in Homewood and lives off Social Security income. 

"I volunteer because society holds me in bondage [to] my past," she says. 

"The box is the issue," says Dean Williams, the director of the Formerly Convicted Citizens Project. His work trying to help people expunge their records motivated him to approach city council about the ban in early 2011. Thirty-two municipalities across the country have passed similar laws, according to the National Employment Law Project. Most merely affect applications used by the government itself. But seven cities — including, most recently, Philadelphia — also bar private employers from asking the question on applications. 

According to Williams, there are 150,000 people in Allegheny County with criminal records — 70,000 of whom reside in the city of Pittsburgh.

"I don't think for a minute that employers should be deceived about your criminal background," he says. "I just think [the applicants] deserve an opportunity to be heard."

Pittsburgh's box ban was introduced last year by City Councilor Ricky Burgess, and would apply only to city jobs and the hiring practices of its contractors. (Exclusions are allowed for sworn positions: police officers, firefighters, paramedics, school crossing guards.) 

Intended to ensure that "applicants with histories of criminal convictions are not discouraged" from seeking city employment, the law wouldn't require the city to ignore a criminal conviction completely. Instead, it would permit the city to do a criminal-history check only "after it has been determined that the applicant is otherwise qualified for the position." 

The city would still reserve the right to rescind a job offer. But under the procedure outlined in the bill, applicants can explain the circumstances of a conviction before the city makes a final decision. 

On paper, the bill would seem to have a strong chance of passing, with support that crosses factional lines that often divide city government. Among those who've indicated support are Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, Bill Peduto, Dan Lavelle and Natalia Rudiak, who says it's an idea that works on several levels. 

"We know an unemployed ex-offender is three times more likely to back to jail," Rudiak says. "This is a fiscal issue that makes sense." 

But the bill has languished in the city solicitor's office since it was introduced, awaiting a determination of its legality. Burgess could not be reached for comment, and ban supporters say Burgess has not returned their calls either. Instead, they say, Councilor Bruce Kraus has taken up their cause, helping orchestrate last week's call for action. 

Sara Rose, a staff attorney for the Greater Pittsburgh Chapter for the American Civil Liberties Union, says state law already prohibits employers from considering criminal records in its hiring decisions, unless the records are relevant to the job. But such discrimination is hard to prove, she says. 

Banning the box from all job applications, which Rose says she believes the city has the authority to do, could make it more difficult for employers to avoid complying with the state law.

Williams says that although he would like the new rules to apply to every employer in the city, the current taxpayer-funded-jobs-only proposal is a good first step. 

"People need to know the city is behind them in doing the right thing in their lives," he says.

He's met one-on-one with city councilors and held nearly two dozen neighborhood meetings. Last week's turnout at city council, in which speakers offered story after story about the difficulties of getting past the box, may have sparked its revival.

"I feel really good about it," says Kraus, who says he expects the bill to be brought forward for a vote by year's end. 

Kraus himself admits he was not originally on board with the proposal. It was Williams, he says, who won him over.

"As an employer, I'm ashamed to say I would have put that application off to the side based on the box," he says. "Imagine what would have happened if Dean, who I happen to think the world of now, came into my office? I would have cast aside one of the most talented individuals I've met in [a long while]. Who loses in that situation? I lose. Dean loses. And the people I serve lose."

Born and raised in West Mifflin, Williams, now 54, worked as a kinesiotherapist at medical centers for veterans in New York for about 15 years. He worked as a fitness trainer on the side, and attempted to get on Broadway as an actor. 

It wasn't until he was in his 40s and back in Pittsburgh, he says, that he turned his recreational drug use into a full-time business, supplying a professional clientele with cocaine.

It didn't last. In 2006, while doing time in the county jail, he says he realized he needed to live life differently. Two years later, after going through a special rehabilitation program, he joined a volunteer group that helped people with convictions on their records get them expunged and leveraged that into a job with the Philadelphia-based X-Offenders for Community Empowerment group. Shortly after, he branched off into his own nonprofit, the FCCP.

"I would never have been where I'm at today had I not had a criminal record," he says. "I would not have the drive. I came out fighting. A lot of people don't have that fight. That doesn't mean they don't deserve to be productive citizens." 

Cheryl Wallace, one of those who testified last week in front of city council, agrees.

A 50-year-old trained medical assistant, Wallace says the box has kept her from working in the career path she set out on. The felonies blocking her way, she says, are more than two decades in her past.

"I've been clean and sober 20 years. You talk about an accomplishment," she says. But, "with this box on the application, I can't move forward."

Stuck in a minimum-wage fast-food job, she also struggles to pay off the student loan for the career she'll never have. 

"I do get very emotional about this. My family has taken me back," she says. "Why can't the city of Pittsburgh give me that second chance to get gainful employment?" 



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