Obama Takes Important Step Toward Opening Employment Opportunities for Formerly Incarcerated People

Categories: Criminal Justice, News

In Newark, N.J., on Monday, President Obama announced a series of measures designed to help the re-entry process for formerly incarcerated people.

One of the measures, which will open up federal employment opportunities, involves Obama directing the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) to explore modifying its rules to delay criminal history inquiries until later in the hiring process. Obama also called on Congress to pass the Fair Chance Act, which a Senate committee unanimously approved last month.

Wade Henderson, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, applauded the president’s leadership in reforming the criminal justice system and called Monday’s announcement an “important step.”

“We agree with the President that Congress must pass bipartisan legislation that would ban the box for federal hiring and contractors. Absent that, the President must issue a strong, comprehensive executive order that will ban the box and give millions of Americans a fair chance at employment with the federal government,” Henderson said. “Today’s announcement shows that, while the President is with us in spirit, his administration is not yet ready to make an executive order a reality. Congress must act, and if it fails to do so, we urge the administration to issue an executive order.”

Monday’s directive to OPM isn’t the first time that Obama has expressed his support for policies to ban the box. On September 14, Obama spoke at NAACP’s annual convention and endorsed the idea.

“Let’s follow the growing number of our states and cities and private companies who have decided to “Ban the Box” on job applications,” Obama said, “so that former prisoners who have done their time and are now trying to get straight with society have a decent shot in a job interview.” That endorsement came the day after he commuted the sentences of 46 drug offenders, and just two days before he became the first sitting president to visit a federal prison.

Back in March, more than 200 organizations and individuals, including Van Jones and Danny Glover, sent Obama a letter urging him to take executive action on the issue. Two months later, 27 senators and more than 70 members of the House sent separate letters with the same ask. “This policy would eliminate unnecessary barriers to employment for all job seekers and would give individuals re-entering the workforce the opportunity to apply for work based on their current merits rather than past wrong-doings,” the senators wrote.

One of those senators is presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, I. Vt. – and his support for fair chance hiring is shared by Martin O’Malley, who includes banning the box in his criminal justice reform agenda, and Hillary Clinton, who on Friday included it in hers as well.

Like many of the measures announced on Monday, banning the box was recommended in May 2014 by the president’s My Brother’s Keeper Task Force. Their report to Obama says this on the topic: “Our youth and communities suffer when hiring practices unnecessarily disqualify candidates based on past mistakes. We should implement reforms to promote successful reentry, including encouraging hiring practices, such as ‘Ban the Box,’ which give applicants a fair chance and allows employers the opportunity to judge individual job candidates on their merits as they reenter the workforce.”

President Obama did improve the workplace policies of the federal government on Labor Day this year when he signed an executive order requiring federal contractors to provide employees with up to seven days of paid sick leave per year. That was another important announcement, but one that does not help job seekers with records who are shut out of employment.

And while Monday’s directive does not apply to employees of federal contractors, Obama’s Labor Day announcement is a reminder that – in the past couple of years – he has issued executive orders that apply to contractors.

Just last year, Obama signed orders to raise the minimum wage for federal contract workers, ban retaliation against employees of federal contractors for discussing their wages, bar discrimination against LGBT contract workers, and require federal contractors – before they can receive new federal contracts – to disclose labor law violations that have occurred in the last three years.

Across the country, 19 states, more than 100 cities and counties, and major employers – like Target, Starbucks, and Koch Industries – already have these policies in place.