Back in 2016, Yangel, a slender 26-year-old from Washington Heights, was working as a fireguard at hospitals. He was getting up at 5 a.m. to work 12-hour shifts and wasn’t getting paid much, so he decided to apply for work at a delivery company.
“I told my mom I got this new job,” he said. “It’s going to pay a lot better.”
He worked one day and received an email when he got back home telling him that he had lost the job and to return his uniform. A background check had turned up a felony robbery conviction from two years earlier for stealing a backpack. He was left jobless for the first time since he was 14.
That might have been the end of the road, but in 2015 New York passed the Fair Chance Act, which restricts when employers can ask about an applicant’s criminal record and whether they can base hiring decisions if he or she has one. Yangel, who happened to know of the law, enlisted an attorney, and, while he wasn’t re-hired, the company eventually settled for $7,500. (We’re not using his last name to protect his privacy. Yangel did not disclose the name of the company because of a non-disparagement clause in the settlement.)
The Fair Chance Act is widely considered one of the toughest “ban the box” laws in the country. In the nearly four years that it has been on the books, the city’s Human Rights Commission has performed 1614 investigations and filed 520 complaints against employers. Violators have paid $789,734 in damages and penalties.
The act prohibits employers from asking about an applicant’s criminal history until they make a conditional job offer. After learning of a conviction, employers can rescind the offer only if there’s a direct relationship between the crime and the position or if the applicant would pose an unreasonable safety risk. And they must explain it all in writing.
Listen to Mirela Iverac's report on WNYC:
The largest settlement — $196,624 — was reached this March against Montefiore Medical Center, which declined to re-hire a vocational rehabilitation counselor after acquiring the Albert Einstein College of Medicine where he had worked. The counselor had a felony conviction from the early 1990s.
Elizabeth Kaledin, a spokeswoman for Montefiore, said in a statement that the settlement “should not be construed as evidence of wrongdoing on the part of Montefiore Einstein.”
As an estimated one in three adults in the U.S. have a criminal record, traditional employment policies can seriously limit employment opportunities for millions of people, especially for black Americans. As a result, support for this type of law has been growing. New York is among 30 cities, states and counties that have passed ban the box laws that apply to private sector employers.
“Since criminal histories disproportionately affect communities of color, this is huge,” said Carmelyn Malalis, Chair and Commissioner of the city’s Commission on Human Rights, which enforces the law. “I think it has allowed people with criminal history to say, ‘I'm employable. I have qualifications. I can provide for my family.’”
Employment attorney Daniel Jacobs says businesses sometimes violate the law because they don’t know all the rules they have to follow.
“It tends to be an uphill battle, especially with smaller employers, just trying to ensure that they're aware of any new legislation,” he said.
Jacobs said another problem that emerges for employers relates to having to wait for the results of a background check after extending a conditional offer and having to give applicants three day to respond if they decide to rescind an offer.
“You're obviously spending time and moving in a direction that ultimately may have you starting again at square one,” he said.
After the delivery company revoked his job offer, Yangel says he was turned down for a job a few other times. He’s filed complaints against one of those companies.
“Just because I have a criminal history doesn't mean I'm a bad worker,” he said. “I take my job very seriously.”
Now he works in Soho for an apparel chain, which didn’t run a background check when they hired him. He said it made him feel “like a normal person.”
Mirela Iverac is a reporter for WNYC, where she covers poverty and homelessness. You can follow her on Twitter at @mirelaiverac.