Zach Williams | July 8, 2015
Eighteen years after release from an upstate prison, Bronx resident Marilyn Scales has yet to secure a full-time job. There was always that formidable hurdle on each and every job application, which she chose to answer honestly.
“As soon as I saw that question, ‘Have you ever been convicted of a felony?,’ that discouraged me. I felt hopeless,” she said during a July 5 interview at Union Square. The 52-year-old had done her time for drug dealing, but personal trials remained. Macy’s, Kmart and about 40 other businesses responded to her job application with silence.
Hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers with prior convictions or arrests faced the same challenge as she did: how to get a job and move their life forward. The future is looking brighter however with the June 29 enactment of a new city law mandating that inquiries into prospective employees’ criminal backgrounds wait until after a job offer.
The legislation passed the City Council on June 10 by a vote of 45 to five with one abstention. Councilmember Corey Johnson, who represents Chelsea, Hell’s Kitchen and the West Village, was among those voting in support. Mayor Bill de Blasio signed the legislation 19 days later with Scales looking on. She received one of the pens traditionally given by the mayor to prominent supporters of approved legislation.
While that moment did not automatically secure full-time employment, the willingness of elected officials and other citizens to take up her cause rejuvenated her faith in society, she said. They agreed that a job application ought to focus on the person rather than the history.
“I never thought they would listen to a person like me because I am a former felon, and with the stigma of being a felon and a woman, it’s been hard especially when I have had to raise my children and I can’t get a job,” added the mother of six.
The new law, known as the Fair Chance Act, establishes a new procedure for dealing with job applicants with prior criminal convictions or arrests. Whereas in the past, applicants had to check a box on a job application if they had a criminal history, they are now given more time to put their best foot forward before the past catches up.
Employers may inquire into such a background only after making a job offer — which they are allowed to rescind once a person’s criminal past comes to light. They must, however, provide a written letter to the applicant in such a case, explaining how their prior conviction conflicts with the position. Then they must give the applicant three days to respond. Some occupational categories such as law enforcement and firefighting are exempt from the new law, which will take effect 120 days following de Blasio’s signature.
Councilmember Jumaane Williams of Brooklyn — the primary sponsor of the legislation — told his colleagues at a June 9 meeting of the council’s Committee on Civil Rights that adopting the new rules could cut down on criminal recidivism while extending protections promulgated by former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, which applied to municipal employment. The Fair Chance Act is not the first legal protection for job applicants with criminal backgrounds, but it does eliminate an element of human psychology, which inevitably led many employers to reject qualified people who paid their debt to society, according to Karen Cacace, a representative of The Legal Aid Society who testified at the same hearing.
“The employer may, and usually will, reject the applicant with a criminal record without giving a meaningful reason, despite the applicant’s qualifications. It is often difficult to prove that the criminal history was the reason for rejection,” Cacace said, according to an official transcript.
The Legal Aid Society represents many of the approximately 100,000 New Yorkers who are convicted of felony offenses each year. She noted at the hearing that “well over” half of the more than 230,000 cases taken up by the organization’s lawyers in 2014 dealt with misdemeanors and petty offenses. A large part of those clients were people of color who live in neighborhoods where police activity is particularly prominent, she added. Even low-level offenders or people who were simply arrested but not convicted face undue difficulties in the job market, according to Cacace.
“Time and again, we see these clients lose their jobs and lose opportunities for career advancement merely by reason of having been arrested, punishments more severe than the actual sentences imposed by judges,” she said.
Several local business owners told Chelsea Now that they are willing to conform to the new law so long as they eventually have an opportunity to reject applicants whose prior offenses are obviously at odds with the work at hand. A litany of offenses is one matter, but someone who demonstrates that they are looking to make good deserve a chance, according to Emma Kabaryan, owner of Pars Grill House & Bar (249 W. 26th St. btw. Seventh & Eighth Aves.).
“I believe a lot of people made a few mistakes in their lives and if they’re ready to change their life paths by working and being nice citizens, we always give a chance to people, even people with criminal convictions. We shouldn’t judge people based on their past,” she said.