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Bill Would Prevent Employers From Asking About Arrests In Initial Job Applications

These days, a common question on job applications is whether you’ve ever been arrested. But a growing number of states, including Minnesota and Massachusetts, have adopted laws to remove questions about criminal history from initial job applications. Sponsors of a bill in Olympia hope to add Washington to that list. 

House Bill 2545 would prevent employers from asking for non-conviction information in initial job applications. 

Among the bill's supporters is Spokane County Superior Court Judge Harold Clarke, who for years presided over drug court and currently serves as the president of the Washington State Association of Drug Court Professionals.

In drug court, if the person completes a court-supervised treatment program, the case is dismissed. There is no conviction, but the initial arrest doesn’t disappear. Clarke says that prevents a lot of people from getting to the job interview stage.

"We just want them to have the opportunity to say that, 'Well, this was dismissed. Here’s what I did to get it dismissed; it wasn’t just a fluke or something like that,'" Clarke said.  "This was somebody that worked hard, very hard, to get to that level."

The bill has some exceptions. For example, it would not apply to anyone working with children.

Employer Concerns

But some employers have concerns. Brad Tower with Community Bankers of Washington told state lawmakers the bill would make it harder for employers to figure out if a job applicant poses a threat to, say, their customers’ financial information.

"We have a duty as a community to make sure any information that’s available for an employer to assess whether they’re putting their customers into a position of risk is at their disposal to make those logical decisions," Tower said at a hearing in January.

But one lawmaker pointed out that employers would still be able to run criminal background checks later in the hiring process.

Vanessa Hernandez, an attorney with the ACLU of Washington, says employers look at arrests and conclude that where there’s smoke, there’s fire — an assumption she calls unfair.

"In the United States, people are entitled to the presumption of innocence," Hernandez said. "This is just trying to bring that presumption somewhat into the process of looking for jobs."

The bill passed out of the labor and workforce development committee. It’s still not clear whether it stands a chance of getting passed this session. 

In July 2017, Ashley Gross became KNKX's youth and education reporter after years of covering the business and labor beat. She joined the station in May 2012 and previously worked five years at WBEZ in Chicago, where she reported on business and the economy. Her work telling the human side of the mortgage crisis garnered awards from the Illinois Associated Press and the Chicago Headline Club. She's also reported for the Alaska Public Radio Network in Anchorage and for Bloomberg News in San Francisco.