DC Bans the Box, Gives Returning Citizens a Better Shot at Jobs

July 21, 2014

An estimated 60,000 District of Columbia residents have criminal records. Roughly 8,000 return to the community each year after serving time behind bars.

And about half of them will be back behind bars within three years. One, though not the only reason is that they can’t get legal, paying work. And one reason they can’t is that their job applications get tossed before they’re read.

That’s going to change. And it ought to change their extraordinarily high unemployment rate — 46%, according to a 2011 survey. Here’s why.

Last week, the DC Council passed what’s commonly known as a “ban the box” bill. Like others of its kind, the new law prohibits generally employers from including queries about criminal records in their job applications.*

They thus can’t automatically screen out anyone and everyone who’s ever been arrested, charged and/or convicted of a crime. Nor, in the District’s bill, can they ask about any of these during interviews.

They may, however, ask about convictions — or conduct a background check — after they’ve made a conditional offer of employment, i.e., one contingent on what they learn about the candidate’s criminal offenses or other matters they’ve said they’d look into.

They may then withdraw the offer, but only for a “legitimate business reason.” For this, the law establishes criteria, e.g., the responsibilities the candidate would have, how long ago s/he committed the crime(s).

But they don’t have to explain an about-face, as they would have in the original version. Nor does the rejected candidate have a right to sue, though s/he can file a claim with the Office of Human Rights — a lot of hassle for minimal compensation, the DC Jobs Council said.

For these reasons, as well as others, the law isn’t as strong as it might be.

Employers with fewer than 11 workers get a free pass, for example. This, as the Employment Justice Center’s Deputy Director testified is a large loophole because even big projects in some industries, e.g., construction, often include small contractors.

But the bill is ever so much better than nothing. And it might have been nothing without the exemptions and other concessions to employer concerns.

In fact, it’s somewhat better than the revised version lead sponsor Councilmember Wells produced in an effort to accommodate the altogether predictable complaints from some business interests, e.g., the local restaurant association.

So count the about-to-be law as a piece of good news in the midst of so much truly terrible stuff.

The District will join the dozen states that have banned the box. And with a stronger law than most. Only four of the states cover private employers. And only one — Hawaii — unequivocally prohibits conviction history inquiries before an offer is made.

The law will surely open doors for some returning citizens — and citizens who returned some considerable time ago. It will also keep doors open for those who are working because the law extends similar protections to employees. Some, we know, have been fired when their criminal records came to light.

The law won’t be a cure-all, however. And no one, to my knowledge, thinks it will be.

The Center for Court Excellence survey cited above indicates some employment barriers beyond the scope of any “ban the box” law, e.g., lack of a pre-incarceration work history and/or in-demand skills and credentials.

There are others — extraordinary difficulties in getting housing, for example. Some Ban the Box Coalition members advocated an expansion of the law to remedy this. So there’s more work to do on the policy front.

But experience tells us that anti-discrimination laws can go only so far — even when they’re strongly enforced, which they generally aren’t. I rather doubt the District’s “ban the box” law will prove an exception, since it’s complaint-based.

Management consultant Wendy Powell argues that such laws “can provide false hope to candidates with a felony conviction” because their job histories will inevitably have a gap. And that, she says, is always a legitimate basis for inquiry.

Whether the criminal record emerges during an interview or, as she recommends, is preempted by voluntary disclosure, employers will have to give returning citizens a chance.

The same, I think, is true when they decide whether to exercise their “legitimate business interest” because they’ve got wiggle room if they’re predisposed to use it — not in all cases perhaps, but I can imagine many.

Ultimately, the success of the new law will depend on whether employers fully embrace the intent. The more that do, the more that will, I think.

* The bill exempts employers that provide programs, services and/or direct care to minors and “vulnerable adults.” This, I’m told, basically reaffirms a provision stating that the pre-offer provisions don’t apply when a federal or local laws and rules require consideration of an applicant’s criminal history.

 


Lots of Solutions to Long-Term Jobless Crisis. But Bipartisan?

June 30, 2014

A panel discussion hosted by the Congressional Full Employment Caucus took on the plight of long-term jobless workers. The big push — and push-back — as you undoubtedly know, has centered on the need to renew their federal unemployment benefits.

But even if — big if — Congress does renew them, long-term jobless workers will still face daunting challenges in the labor market.

These have everything to do with how long they’ve been unemployed — and virtually nothing to do with anything else.

A recent analysis by panelist Heidi Shierholz at the Economic Policy Institute found that long-term unemployment rates were considerably higher last year than in 2007 for every group — age, education level, race/ethnicity, gender, prior type of occupation and industry.

So “it’s not something wrong with the workers,” she said. And her fellow panelists agreed. Their main business, however, was to identify “proven bipartisan solutions to the crisis.”

I wish I could say that I came away believing that the ideas they teed up would, in fact, gain bipartisan support in Congress.

As panelist Judy Conti at the National Employment Law Project said, there is a bipartisan consensus on the problem to solve — not enough jobs for everybody who needs one.

But that’s about as far as it goes. Conti mentioned what are generally partisan splits over how job-creating measures should be paid for — by closing corporate tax loopholes, for example, or by cutting other federal spending.

The split, I think, goes deeper than that. We’ve got Republicans going on about the job-killing effects of the Affordable Care Act, other regulations that are strangling businesses, etc.

Democrats, on the other hand, talk of more federal investment — in infrastructure, education, clean energy and other cutting-edge technologies. They’d like to channel more money to state and local governments for police and firefighters.

They want to change provisions in the tax code that effectively subsidize the costs of off-shoring jobs, as well as others that enable corporations to significantly reduce — or altogether eliminate — their federal tax liabilities.

And, of course, they want long-term unemployment benefits renewed — not only because jobless workers and their families need them, but because they create and/or preserve jobs.

This is because people who receive the benefits generally perforce spend them on basic needs. So demand for goods and services rises. More demand translates into more jobs — and more jobs into more demand.

This, I take it, is the same basic premise underlying the call for more investments. It also underpins another solution Shierholz mentioned — action that would deter other countries from manipulating their currencies so as to make their exports cheaper and imports from the U.S. costlier.

What’s not altogether clear is whether more jobs would solve the long-term unemployment crisis, unless there were so many more employers needed to fill that they couldn’t continue to screen out applicants who’d been out of work for some time.

Happily, panelists also had some thoughts about how to level the playing field.

One already underway is somewhat similar to the subsidized employment programs most states created, using money from the now-expired TANF Emergency Contingency Fund that was part of the Recovery Act.

Two other solutions are already pending in Congress. An uphill battle there. One would prohibit employers from using credit checks as a screening tool. It’s not specifically for long-term jobless workers, but for obvious reasons, they’re more likely than others to fall behind on their bills.

The other would undo a Supreme Court ruling that makes it extraordinarily difficult for older workers to prove age discrimination — apparently a reason that so many who become jobless remain so.

Though I’ve referred to these solutions as leveling the playing field, the last two could also be viewed as preventive measures.

Another explicitly endorsed by two panelists (and a third who couldn’t participate) would also tend to prevent unemployment — and thus the risks of its becoming long term.

It’s commonly known as work sharing. And federal funds are temporarily available for states that adopt it — or modify their existing programs to comply with the Department of Labor’s standards.

Under work sharing, employers may reduce workers’ hours, with their consent, rather than lay them off when business is slow. What the workers lose in wages is partly made up for by unemployment benefits.

This is obviously better for workers than getting fired. And better for employers because they don’t lose experienced workers — and incur the costs of hiring and training when business picks up again.

Work sharing isn’t new, but we’ve been hearing more about it, thanks to the Great Recession — and ongoing labor market woes. It’s often cited as the reason Germany’s unemployment rate didn’t spike, though its economy was hard hit.

Even though our unemployment rate is inching down, there are still about 1.5 million layoffs a month, Shierholz told us. So work sharing could still save a lot of grief.

And it enjoys support from lead economists at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute and the decidedly left-wing Center for Economic and Policy Research. Bipartisan in this respect, at least.

Lastly, Conti reminded us that jobless workers used to have to pick up their unemployment benefits checks. Office staff told them about suitable openings and sometimes helped them in other ways.

Such individualized, in-person services have dwindled — at least partly due to cuts in federal funding for the One Stop Career Centers.

A greater investment in these services would more than pay for itself, NELP says — in unemployment benefits saved, tax revenues collected and reduced social and human costs.

We see a glimmer of bipartisan support for more robust reemployment services in the new “bipartisan” bill to renew long-term unemployment benefits, as in the bill that recently died in the House.

Ultimately, I suppose, it all depends on what we mean by “bipartisan.” A number of the panelists’ solutions have — or could gain — support from some conservatives. But substantial support from both parties in Congress is a whole other matter.

 


More to Bad Jobs Than Low Hourly Pay

March 24, 2014

New York Times columnist Steven Greenhouse profiles a nurse’s aide and several other low-wage workers in Chattanooga, Tennessee to show why low-wage workers generally are “finding poverty harder to escape.”

One reason is simple enough. Their hourly pay rates are too low. All the profiled workers get somewhat more than the federal minimum, which applies in Tennessee and 28 other states — not, however, as much as the proposed $10.10 an hour. So the increase would help.

But low pay rates alone don’t account for the troubles the workers have paying for basic expenses. The nurse’s aide, for example, like a growing number of low-wage workers across the country, doesn’t have a regular work schedule, let alone a full-time job.

“For today’s low-wage, hourly workers, … scarce, unstable and unpredictable hours are the new norm,” write Professors Charlotte Alexander and Anna Haley-Lock.

Employers aren’t only cutting back on full-time jobs. Those that can are, in many cases, relying on “just-in-time” scheduling, i.e., adding and subtracting workers’ hours according to immediate need.

It’s reportedly common in restaurants and other retail businesses, which can now establish very short shifts — 15 minutes, in some cases — and use software to fill them, based on customer traffic, sales or predictors like weather conditions.

Workers may show up for what they think is a five-hour shift and be sent home early. They may be told they’ll need to put in extra hours — or to be available for them, with no guarantee they’ll be working.

They may have no regular hours at all, but instead have to call in daily — or be constantly accessible by phone. More commonly, their work days and/or hours change from week to week. And they don’t know what their schedule will be until a day or so before they’ve got to meet it.

“Even then,” said one chain restaurant worker, “it was only a guesstimate.”

Likewise, of course, the budget planning that low-income people are enjoined to practice. “I have been scheduled for as few as six hours in a week and as many as forty,” says a New York City sales associate. “How is anyone … supposed to plan a budget with such erratic schedules?”

And how is a parent supposed to manage childcare arrangements, when she’s sometimes needed, sometimes not, sometimes for far longer than scheduled — or at altogether different hours?

And how will she afford child care when a center may tack on a hefty fee for late pick-ups — or when her hours are suddenly, though perhaps (or perhaps not) temporarily cut in half?

Iffy schedules pose other problems for low-wage workers. For example, they can’t take on a second part-time job because they can’t commit to any work schedule, even if not another “just-in-time.”

They often can’t try to improve their prospects by getting more education or specialized training because they never know when or how often their work schedule will conflict with their classes.

The surges and plunges in working hours also wreak havoc on eligibility for many public benefits and the support they provide because recipients generally have to recertify, i.e., periodically reapply.

A woman in Massachusetts says, “A good month, I can work thirty-eight to forty-five hours and it just happens to be that month they want my pay stubs for food stamps. OK, the next month comes around I’ve worked three hours one week, twelve hours another week … They don’t want my pay stubs for that month.”

So she could lose at least part of her food stamp benefit — and then have to try to recover it. Temporary hours spikes can also jeopardize childcare subsidies, WIC, housing assistance and Medicaid.

On the other hand, earnings plunges make it even more difficult for low-wage workers to qualify for unemployment benefits. Yet they’re at high risk for unemployment — in part because they’re expected to work whenever.

Finally, as many have written, the on-again, off-again, never-know-when schedules create high levels of stress for workers. They’re also harmfully stressful for their children, whose daily routines and caregivers constantly change.

CLASP and partners have identified two policies that some employers have adopted to mitigate the problems of unstable schedules for low-wage workers.

One, also favored by Professors Alexander and Haley-Lock, guarantees workers who’ve reported when told to a certain number of hours of pay.

Seven states and the District of Columbia actually have so-called “reporting pay” laws, but they vary considerable in whom they cover, the number of hours guaranteed and the required pay rate.

These laws may be on the books, but it’s doubtful they’re consistently enforced, since they hinge on vulnerable workers filing complaints. And, of course, they do nothing about schedules that constantly change.

Nor does the other policy, though it comes closer. It guarantees workers a set number of hours a week — or pay for those hours if there’s not enough work for them to do. Costco, among others (probably not very many), has a version of this policy.

There’s a business case to be made for a work guarantee. It can help reduce turnover, for example, and increase productivity — not only because workers know their jobs, but because they want to do them well.

But, as the CLASP report says, “relying solely on voluntary employer action will not suffice.” We’ll need new and/or revised laws and regulations to make bad jobs better in the rapidly-growing low-wage service sectors.


Why We Need Full Employment Policies Now

March 13, 2014

Awhile back, Dean Baker at the Center for Economic and Policy Research published a (free) book castigating progressives for “loser liberalism.” We’ve played into the hands of conservatives, he argued, by failing to focus on how they’ve structured markets to “redistribute income upward.”

This came not long after Rortybomb blogger Mike Konszal asserted that we’ve given in to “a kind of pity-charity liberal capitalism” because we’ve abandoned the vision of a government that empowers workers.

New York Times columnist Thomas Edsell picked up on this, saying that our focus on “means-tested transfer programs” like food stamps and long-term unemployment benefits leave “the most needy and vulnerable to the vagaries of public opinion” — a big mistake because hard times like these diminish sympathy for the less fortunate.

These critiques make me feel more than a little sensitive, since I’ve tended to focus on programs designed to compensate for the economic disadvantages of the poor and near-poor.

I’m not inclined to shift my focus to how markets are structured. Which is just as well because I don’t have the expertise.

But I do think it’s time to get a little balance here. So I want to take note of a major theme in the critiques — and another (free) book, co-authored by Baker and fellow economist-blogger Jared Bernstein.

The theme is the need for government policies that will create and sustain full employment.

We’d then have an economy where increased demand for goods and services wouldn’t create a more jobs because, with some limited exceptions, everyone who wanted a job had one — and was working for as many hours as s/he wanted to or could.

Or, as economists conceive it, the unemployment rate would be low enough so that increased demand would only drive up inflation.

Full employment would obviously solve our immediate jobless worker problems — especially the very high percent of workers who’ve been jobless a long time and seemingly will remain so as long as employers can chose to summarily reject them, as many apparently do.

But as ex-Wonkblogger Ezra Klein’s review of the Baker-Bernstein book says, full employment also creates the conditions for worker power — and the wages, benefits and other working conditions that power can gain.

It’s especially important in today’s economy, where unions represent only 6.7% of private-sector workers. This, combined with other developments, e.g., opportunities for businesses to shift jobs overseas or to states with laws that weaken unions, helps explain the fact that wages have flat-lined — except for those at the tippy-top.

It’s most important for workers without a college degree — in part because many who have one are perforce currently taking jobs that don’t require college-level skills. Hence an unemployment rate for the lowest-educated workers that’s three times higher than the rate for college graduates.

This is one reason Bernstein calls full employment “the best, if not the only, friend of the working class.” But it’s not the only reason.

When he analyzes data from the Economic Policy Institute, he finds significant increases in hours worked by those in the bottom fifth of the income scale during past periods of full employment — and increases for those in the middle fifth also.

This, of course, is another way that full employment boosts wages. It would surely make a big difference now, with more than 7.2 million part-timers who’d like full-time work, but can’t get it.

Needless to say, I hope, anything that boosted working families’ incomes would narrow the growing gap between the richest and the rest. We’d probably still have a high degree of income inequality, which ought to concern us forth both economic and political reasons.

But (back to Bernstein again) the growth of our economy, i.e., the value of all the goods and services produced, would be more equally shared.

And there’d be more growth because lower and middle-income families would spend more, without contributing to the sort of credit bubble that’s been held partly responsible for our Great Recession.

And for all these reasons, there’d more tax revenues that could be used to strengthen the safety net and/or work supports — the Earned Income Tax Credit, for example, and subsidized child care — for the smaller number of people who still couldn’t afford what Baker and Bernstein refer to as “a decent standard of living.”

Baker and Bernstein propose a number of ways to achieve full employment — some more controversial than others.

Most controversial perhaps is the fundamental premise. The federal government should actively intervene to restore full employment. And that will mean choosing to run deficits for awhile, rather than trying to squeeze as much as possible out of the non-defense part of the budget.

Hard to imagine in this political climate. But if enough people understood what they — and the country as a whole — would gain from a full employment economy, we might see the political will to pursue it.


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