If you have served time in a prison for a criminal conviction, you know that employment is perhaps the toughest challenge for anyone who is returning to the outside world. Will you be able to find a job? Will you face discrimination? Is legal protection or help available? If you are looking for work in California after serving time in prison, keep reading. The state has new laws that you need to know about.

According to recent national surveys, as many as two-thirds of the employers in the United States still ask job applicants to disclose prior criminal convictions on an initial job application, and 92 percent of employers make some kind of inquiry about a prospective employee’s background. Many employers simply will not hire anyone who “checks the box” that asks about previous convictions on the employment application.

But in more than one hundred U.S. cities – and now statewide throughout California – “Ban the Box” laws let employers consider a job seeker’s application on its merits and without being prejudiced by non-job-related information. Most of these ordinances exempt employers who hire for “sensitive” positions such as jobs in law enforcement and jobs working with children.

EXACTLY WHAT IS THE “BAN THE BOX” CAMPAIGN?

According to Wikipedia, the Ban the Box “campaign” was launched in the 1990s “by civil rights groups and advocates for ex-offenders, aimed at persuading employers to remove from their hiring applications the check box that asks if applicants have a criminal record…The premise of the campaign is that anything that makes it harder for ex-offenders to find a job makes it likelier that they will re-offend, which is bad for society.”

Over fourteen million arrests are made every year in the U.S., and about two-thirds of all felony arrests lead to criminal convictions, so the number of job seekers who need Ban the Box-style legal protection is always on the rise. Ban the Box laws give job applicants a fair chance at employment by removing the conviction history question on job applications and by delaying the background check inquiry until later in the hiring process.

In 2014, San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors banned “the box” for employers in that city, but many California employers outside of San Francisco were still printing the box on job applications until July of this year, when a “ban the box” rule finally took effect for most employers in this state.

The rule keeps employers from asking job seekers about prior convictions if the questions are not job-related or if the questions have an “adverse impact” on someone who belongs to a class protected by California anti-discrimination laws. However, in October, job seekers in this state gained even more legal protection when Governor Jerry Brown signed the California Fair Chance Act – one of the nation’s strongest “ban the box” laws.

WHAT DOES THE CALIFORNIA FAIR CHANCE ACT PROVIDE?

Under the Fair Chance Act, which goes into effect in just a few weeks – on January 1, 2018 – no California employer with five or more employees will be allowed to ask any job applicant about his or her prior criminal convictions before a decision to hire is made. That’s important, because more than one in four adults in our state has a prior arrest or conviction – and that’s about eight million people. Many of them are parents.

According to a statement released by the nonprofit National Employment Law Project (NELP), “When eight million people across the state are effectively shut out of employment, that shrinks the economy, undermines public safety, and harms families and communities. For those reasons, this new law – which aims to give people with records a fair chance at employment – will ultimately benefit all of us.”

The Fair Chance Act makes California the tenth U.S. state that bans the box for both public and private employers. Twenty-nine states ban the box for public employers, and earlier this year, lawmakers in Louisiana prohibited that state’s public universities from asking applicants about their previous convictions. Lawmakers in Newark, New Jersey, recently approved an ordinance that expands the ban the box anti-discrimination policy to housing.

IF YOU ENCOUNTER HIRING DISCRIMINATION, WHERE CAN YOU TURN?

Employment seekers, as well as employees, enjoy considerable legal protections in the state of California. Whether or not you have a prior criminal conviction, if you are seeking employment in this state and you believe that a California employer has asked you questions that cannot be legally asked, arrange as quickly as possible to discuss your situation with an experienced San Francisco employment rights attorney.

If you are a victim of hiring discrimination in California, the law is on your side. If a California employer violates your rights as a job seeker, and if you file a discrimination claim, an attorney may be able to help you negotiate an out-of-court settlement, or you may qualify to bring a discrimination lawsuit. An experienced San Francisco employment rights attorney can protect your rights, outline your options, and explain how the law applies to your own case.

In addition to the Fair Chance Act, employees in California receive additional protection from California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act, which explicitly forbids employment discrimination for any of these reasons: ancestry, national origin, or physical or mental disability; race, color, or religion; medical condition, age, or pregnancy; sexual orientation or marital status; and gender, sex, gender expression, or gender identity.

HOW WILL THE FAIR CHANCE ACT BENEFIT CALIFORNIANS?

The Fair Chance Act benefits thousands of families in California, connects employers with employees they might otherwise overlook, and reduces prison overcrowding by lowering the recidivism rate in our state. Banning the box is one more step toward ending employment discrimination in all of its forms in the state of California.

If you believe that you are or have been a victim of employment discrimination in California, put the law to work for you. An experienced San Francisco employment rights attorney may be able to negotiate an out-of-court settlement on your behalf, without the time and inconvenience that accompanies a trial.

If a negotiated settlement with the employer cannot be reached, an experienced California employment lawyer will take your case to trial and hold the employer accountable for illegal discrimination. Employment discrimination is unacceptable, and beginning in 2018, the California Fair Chance Act will forbid it in this state.

By: Fred Geonetta

Frederick J. Geonetta is a graduate of the University of California, Hastings College of Law. His legal practice is entirely devoted to litigation. Mr. Geonetta has spent the past 25 years in private practice representing both plaintiffs and defendants who have been harmed or wronged by the actions of others or who have been falsely accused of causing harm to others. He represents clients across the U.S. and international clients who seek U.S. legal advice or representation.