Mayor Benjamin signs ordinance

Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin conducts a formal signing of a bill that bans asking job applicants about past convictions. He is joined by community organizer Lester Young and members of JustLeadership USA, which advocated for the change. Mike Fitts/Staff

COLUMBIA — Mayor Steve Benjamin has challenged other local governments in South Carolina to follow Columbia's lead in removing from their job applications any question about past criminal convictions — a huge stumbling block for those seeking to rebuild their lives more positively, according to advocates for the policy.

Columbia and Richland County both passed such policies this summer, with the city becoming the first in South Carolina to do so by ordinance, according to the mayor's office. At least one other county, York, has passed such a measure, doing so in 2018.

Columbia's ordinance also changes the rules for background checks, with those no longer being conducted automatically. Instead, background checks will be done only when the sensitivity of the job requires it. 

Benjamin called the move a step toward opportunity and equality.

"I'm encouraging other cities and municipalities across the state to pass similar ordinances," he said.

The change is part of the "ban the box" movement about not disclosing criminal records on application forms during initial job inquiries.

Charleston, by order of Mayor John Tecklenburg, has banned asking about convictions on applications  since 2016, according to city spokesman Jack O'Toole. Applicants for city jobs in Charleston undergo a background check after receiving a conditional offer of employment, O'Toole said. 

Benjamin touted the Columbia ordinance change as both a second chance for those who need it and a move to expand the ranks of the employed.  

"A lot of the political unrest in this country ... is because so many folks don't believe that economic opportunity is available to them," Benjamin said. "We need more soldiers in the battlefield."

In its bidding policy for contracts, the city now has the authority to consider a company's move to "ban the box" in its hiring as a positive for awarding them work. That was an intentional move to get companies to follow Columbia's lead, he said.

"This is going to be baked into our process," the mayor added.

Columbia's ordinance also prohibits applicants from being asked about their wage history, a common step on many applications that Benjamin said could reinforce disparities in pay. Removing that step could be a benefit to groups such as women, who often have been paid less, the mayor said.

While Columbia and Richland County have been part of the forefront of this movement in the state, other parts of the United States have been taking this action ahead of South Carolina, said Lester Young, a community organizer for advocacy group JustLeadership USA.

More than 150 municipal governments and 35 states have passed some form of "ban the box" measure, according to the National Employment Law Project. Many of those cover only government hiring and not the private sector. 

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Helping people with criminal pasts find careers helps them and others, Young said. "We have to repair families that have been damaged by incarceration," said Young, who vowed while in prison to use his skills to help others. "It's the power of giving the person a second chance."

Private employers can benefit from revising their hiring practices to find employees they might otherwise dismiss as candidates, said David Dubberly, an attorney in labor and employment law at Nexsen Pruet.

"It's in the best interest of employers to broaden the labor pool," Dubberly said.

Employers can make a more informed judgment about candidates when the issue comes up later in the hiring process than they can if the question discourages folks from completing the application, Dubberly said. Employers can consider the relevance of the past issue and whether it even involved a an applicant's past work, he said.

Dubberly sees risk for employers, however, if they take the further step of reducing or eliminating background checks before hiring. Not doing a background check could be considered failing to take reasonable care in hiring, if that employee goes on to commit some violation for which the company could be liable, he said. 

He would advise employers to use background checks but then make an informed decision on hiring based on the duties that will expected of that employee. It's one thing to hire a law enforcement officer or finance official, but many jobs don't need to be held to the same standard, he said.

"There's got to be a business reason to disqualify someone," Dubberly said.

Mikaela Porter contributed to this report.

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