Having a criminal background can be a major barrier in accessing employment. In the City of Seattle, the Job Assistance Ordinance places limits on how employers can use conviction and arrest records for jobs within the city limits. The Ordinance aims to increase employment opportunities, which will reduce recidivism, address impacts resulting from racial disparities within the criminal justice system and strengthen the community.
The journey began in 2008 when the Seattle Office for Civil Rights conducted presentations on civil rights at various community organizations. The Office heard from various social service programs that clients were routinely being turned down for jobs as well as for housing opportunities because of conviction records, some of which dated back more than 20 years.
The Office also from Sojourner Place Transitional Housing and the Village of Hope, community groups who had begun to organize around and conduct research on this issue. The barriers to employment and housing were defined clearly as a racial justice issue both because of existing racial disparities in arrest and conviction rates that impact communities of color and continued racial discrimination against people of color applying for jobs and housing. They pointed out that other cities, such as New York, had laws that that limited the use of criminal background checks in employment.
In response, the Office for Civil Rights convened two forums in partnership with the Seattle Human Rights Commission and other groups to hear from community about the impact of this issue, particularly in the area of housing. Brenda Anibarro, Policy Manager at the Office for Civil Rights, says that each meeting was at capacity and a strong majority of those in attendance were in favor of the City passing legislation that regulated the use of criminal backgrounds. Brenda stated that most of the people who testified at these forums were people of color.
Seattle City Council member, Bruce Harrell, responded to the strong advocacy of community organizations and decided to take this issue on from the employment perspective. Community groups worked with Harrell to develop the legislation. These groups provided clear evidence of racial disparities in criminal arrests and convictions, calling out how people of color are systemically disadvantaged at every step in the criminal justice process and how this leads to difficulty obtaining employment. Harrell also worked with business owners to get their input on how the legislation could be written and implemented. The legislation, called the Job Assistance Ordinance, passed through City Council and it went into effect on November 1, 2013.
The Office for Civil Rights is responsible for enforcing the Job Assistance Ordinance. The Office did extensive outreach regarding the new law. The general media campaign included bus and radio advertisements, a public service announcement as well as presentations to community groups. In particular, the Office reached out to small business owners, and immigrant business owners. The Office wanted to be clear when framing the issue around racial disparities not to trigger unconscious biases that might exacerbate stereotypes. Instead, the Office wanted the focus to be on systemic and structural inequities that lead to the disproportionate arrest and convictions of people of color.
The Ordinance requires that demographic information be collected on the charging party in cases brought in for investigation. This will ensure that the office can track who is being impacted by barriers and whether the office is responding and addressing racial inequities.
Now that the law has been in effect for over a year, the Office is reaching out to the community to share information about how the Ordinance is working. Showing the community that the law is not only in place but is actually having an effect builds trust and enables community to feel that they have a true partner in the Office for Civil Rights.
Brenda emphasizes that this building trust and accountability with community groups as well as employers has been key in implementing the Ordinance. Once the law was passed, it was critical for community to see it being implemented in a meaningful way. Brenda also advises other jurisdictions enacting similar legislation to position racial equity messaging clear and up-front, as well as build ways of tracking demographics into the law. The Job Assistance Ordinance is one way the City of Seattle is moving toward a more equitable future.