TRENTON, N.J. (AP) -- Legislation that would limit New Jersey employers from asking job applicants about their criminal past earned praise Thursday from advocates who said it gives ex-offenders a second chance but was criticized by business leaders who cited safety issues.
The bill would effectively "ban the box" on job applications that asks job seekers if they have a criminal history. It still allows employers to ask, but only once a conditional offer is made.
The Labor Committee heard from more than a dozen advocates, ex-offenders and business representatives. Proponents said the bill is necessary because studies show evidence that some businesses immediately toss out applications when they see someone marked yes.
They say the measure gives people a chance to actually land job interviews before an employer can write them off for their past.
The bill would not override existing laws requiring background checks for certain jobs, such as those in day care centers, psychiatric hospitals and law enforcement. A second discussion-only hearing to give more people a chance to testify will be scheduled in coming weeks.
Advocates stressed that people with minor offenses fall under the same stigma as serious criminals and have no fair chance to redeem themselves.
"A bad left turn in anyone's life doesn't necessarily mean that a human being doesn't have the skills and abilities to be a productive member of society," Al Koeppe, of Newark Alliance, testified. As the former president of PSEG, or Public Service Enterprise Group, Koeppe said, he hired many people who had a criminal past, and many of them worked harder than those that did not because they knew how hard getting a job was.
"Employers still have the ultimate discretion to choose the best candidate for the job," said Sen. Sandra Cunningham, D-Hudson, who sponsored the bill. "But these decisions should be based on skills and qualifications, rather than past convictions."
But business leaders say the inability to inquire about crimes early on poses safety and security risks. They also said it's a waste of time and money to wait to find out whether someone has a criminal past — especially if they find the crime conflicts with the nature of the job.
And, by the time a conditional offer has been made, the job seeker may have already been brought into the office and met employees without being able to inquire about even the most serious of offenses, said Stefanie Riehl, assistant vice president of the New Jersey Business and Industry Association.
"This is going to raise safety and security concerns," Riehl said.
Eric DeGesero, who also brought up safety concerns, is part of two organizations that represent electricians and those who repair and replace air conditioning and heating units.
Since those jobs require working inside people's homes, DeGesero asked that an amendment be added that exempts those jobs from banning the box.
Still, ex-offender Walter Fortson told his story of having committed a crime, served time but being determined to turn his life around. Fortson is headed to the University of Cambridge, but he's still worried about finding a job.
"This bill simply affords someone in my position a fair chance at employment," Fortson told the panel. "Without this, so much potential is lost."