Benjamin State of the City 2019

Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin, center.

The City of Columbia has passed a law that it will not ask for job seekers’ criminal history on initial employment applications, and it will encourage vendors that do business with the city to also eliminate criminal history from their applications.

The new law also stipulates that the city will not ask for a prospective employee’s wage history when considering that person for a job.

Columbia City Council unanimously passed final reading on the new law at an Aug. 6 meeting.

The practice of omitting a criminal history question on an application is commonly known as “banning the box.” According to the National Employment Law Project, 35 states and more than 150 cities and counties have adopted a “ban the box” policy, essentially choosing to eliminate the question of a person’s criminal history from initial job applications. Richland County Council voted to establish such a policy in early June. 

The theory is that, if an employer sees on an application that a person has a criminal background, they could develop an opinion about that person before ever taking a closer look into their qualifications and abilities. Banning the box could help eliminate that initial barrier. The City of Columbia has been practicing “ban the box” in its own internal hiring practices for about three years, per city officials. The new measure formally makes it city law, and takes the extra step of encouraging the entities that do business with the city to follow the same practices.

At-large City Councilman Howard Duvall says it was time for the city to officially make the move regarding criminal history inquiries on first applications.

“This will kind of level the playing field for people who may have had a mistake early in life,” Duvall says. “The ‘ban the box’ will not prevent the city from doing background checks. But it will keep a person who has had a conviction in the past from being automatically excluded from consideration, and gets them into the application pool. Once they are in the application pool, and maybe rise to the top of that pool, then if it is a sensitive position we are authorized to do a background check to make sure that nothing in the past would prevent them from performing the job for which they have applied.”

Mayor Steve Benjamin pushed for Council to formalize its practice of not initially asking for an applicant's criminal history. The mayor was pleased Council made it law.

"We believe that every Columbian wants and deserves the opportunity to earn a good living and we know there are as many Americans with previous criminal histories as there are those with college degrees," Benjamin tells Free Times. "This just makes sense and it's the right thing to do."

As for the wage history portion of the new ordinance, the city cited the pay gap between men and women as motivation.

“Since women are paid on average lower wages than men, basing wages upon a worker’s wage at a previous job only serves to perpetuate gender wage inequalities and leave families with less money to spend on food, housing and other essential goods and services, and salary offers should be based on job responsibilities of the position sought and not based on prior wages earned by the applicant,” reads language in the city’s new ordinance.

According to the Columbia-based nonprofit Women’s Rights and Empowerment Network, women on average earn 27 percent less than their male counterparts for full-time work in South Carolina.

“I think that too often, if that [wage history] question is asked, you are asking the person to tell you what their bottom line is before coming to work for you,” Duvall tells Free Times. “You need to be paying them based on what the job itself is worth that you are hiring them for. I think that’s another place where we are trying to correct past inequities in wage.”

We're improving out commenting experience.

We’ve temporarily removed comments from articles while we work on a new and better commenting experience. In the meantime, subscribers are encouraged to join the conversation on our Free Times Facebook page.