Employment disparities are intensified by a judicial system that disproportionately imprisons people of color. These ex-offenders return to our communities each year, often with limited education and little or no training under their belts, months or years void of work experience, and the “scarlet letter” of criminal conviction on their resume.
Employers routinely use the background checks as an employment screen—a practice that has grown increasingly prevalent in recessionary labor markets where there are a multitude of applicants for any given job. Recognizing this devastating impact, in 2009 Minnesota barred the use of conviction history questions from public sector job applications—a reform commonly known as “ban the box”. In 2013, Minnesota enacted legislation to “ban the box” from private employment applications as well.
“Ban the box” will enable candidates with a criminal record to “make the first cut” as employers will no longer be able to use any form of employment application that seeks criminal record information, nor will they be allowed to inquire about such information until an applicant has been selected for an interview or a conditional job offer of employment has been extended. It is designed to get job candidates past the initial application stage, so that if they qualify for the job, they are afforded a chance to explain their criminal record to the potential employer.
As with criminal background checks, credit history reviews can prevent qualified people from getting hired if they are carrying debt, even for essential obligations like medical bills and student loans. Credit checks constitute an illegitimate barrier to employment, especially among people of color. Nationwide, steps are being taken to protect against discriminatory potential of credit checks in employment. In 2010, a US Department of Labor judge ruled that Bank of American had discriminated against African American job applicants for entry-level positions, in part by using credit checks to screen candidates. There is a growing movement for legislative action to restrict the use of credit checks in employment, with eight states (California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Oregon, Vermont and Washington) passing new laws as of February 2013. Minnesota should join these states, and help ensure that people with impaired credit are not shut out of job opportunities.
Increasingly, a college degree has replaced a high school diploma as the “floor” under which many employers refuse to hire, despite the fact that a number of jobs college grads are filling are not commensurate with skills learned acquiring a bachelor’s degree. Like criminal and credit histories, using a four-year college degree as a proxy for “work ready” is more likely to hurt the job prospects of people of color, who disproportionately fill the ranks of workers without a bachelor’s degree.
Many jobs have become more sophisticated and complex and do require more college-level technical training than similar jobs in the past. At the same time, jobs that once required no more than an associate degree, industry certificate, or on-the-job training are now being filled by people with a four-year degree, despite the fact that the skills needed to perform the job haven’t change significantly. The trend has been termed “up-credentialing,” a practice that results in pushing the less educated even further away from realistic employment.
Employers also need to intentionally build a workplace environment that is sensitive to and supportive of various cultures. Most often professionals of color who relocate to the Twin Cities have trouble connecting with the community, feeling at home, and developing a strong peer and professional network, with many choosing to leave the region within two years. This turnover costs companies thousands of dollars and they end up losing out on the innovations that can derive from multiple perspectives.
The Twin Cities are fortunate to have a number of well-regarded organizations that offer diversity training and cultural awareness workshops tailored to the workplace. In response to the Twin Cities inability to retain professionals of color, the Minneapolis and St. Paul Chambers of Commerce created The Partnership, a diversity program designed to help retain professionals of color. Participants meet other community and business leader of color, learn about the region, and develop a personal and professional network of peers.