Targeting Job Discrimination Against Former Offenders

Nov 14, 2013, 2:53 PM

file Image courtesy of TakeAction Minnesota

During a town hall meeting in Minnesota last month, the Target Corporation, one of the largest employers in the United States, announced that the company will remove the criminal history question from its initial employment application. While Target has already removed this question in states where it is legally prohibited, this announcement will apply to all U.S. Target locations, even in areas where asking the question is permitted by state or local law. In Minnesota, the Ban the Box law will go into effect January 1, 2014.

“Over the past year, members of the Target team have had many productive conversations with TakeAction Minnesota,” says Molly Snyder, a spokesman for the company. “Many of our discussions have focused on Minnesota’s racial jobs gap and the barriers individuals with criminal records face when seeking employment.”

file Justin Terrell, TakeAction Minnesota

The decision by Target is in part the result of efforts led by the TakeAction Minnesota Education Fund, a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Roadmaps to Health community grantee, to address job discrimination based on criminal background. Often tied to significant unemployment throughout the country, studies show that having a criminal record is a barrier to employment opportunities and depresses wages. And data from Minnesota finds that half of all former offenders are unemployed, with the rate higher for ex-offenders of color who disproportionately make up the prison population.

The Roadmaps to Health Community Grants are collaborations that have received two year funding of up to $200,000 to work with diverse coalitions of policy-makers, business, education, health care, public health, and community organizations. The grantees and their partners are pursuing policies or system changes that address the social, economic, and environmental factors that influence how healthy people are and how long they live. The Roadmaps to Health Community Grants project is a major component of the County Health Rankings & Roadmaps program—a collaboration of RWJF and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute.

TakeAction Minnesota is using its grant to promote new statewide fair hiring standards for businesses, such as persuading prospective employers to consider criminal records only when they directly relate to the position rather than asking questions on applications that promote blanket rejections. Earlier this year, the Minnesota legislature passed the “ban the box” legislation and it was signed into law in May, making Minnesota the third state in the nation to adopt “ban the box” in both the public and private sectors. Under the new law, an employer will no longer be allowed to include a check box about criminal background on the initial employment application. 

NewPublicHealth recently spoke with Justin Terrell, manager of the Justice 4 All program at TakeAction Minnesota, about the intersection of employment and health.

NewPublicHealth: What are the ways in which employment impacts health?

Justin Terrell:  One of the ways that employment impacts health is that if you have a job, you are more likely to have healthcare coverage or be able to be able to get coverage.  But income also has an impact on health — the more money you have left over after paying bills, the less you’re worried about housing, about what you’re eating if you’re not on assistance.

It’s surprising and people don’t often think about it, but income also has an impact on safety. In low-income, under-resourced communities of color like north Minneapolis, where we do a lot of our work, you have people who are ten times more likely to be incarcerated for the same crime committed compared with whites in other communities. Those with criminal records can’t find work. Well, now communities have a safety issue as well because our recidivism rate in Minnesota is 61 percent. We believe in the Homeboy Industries’ slogan: “nothing stops a bullet like a job.” [Editor’s Note: Homeboy Industries is a nonprofit that serves high-risk, formerly gang-involved men and women with free services and programs.]

So in that respect, having employment has a huge impact on health and it’s why we’re in the fight that we’re in — to try to create more fair access to employment for people with records so that we can lower our recidivism rate; expand the amount of wealth in our communities; keep more families together; and, in the end, have healthier communities.

NPH: Tell us about Justice 4 All.

Justin Terrell: There are people in the community, like myself, who have a criminal record and who have found it difficult to find employment. So we do education at places such as workforce agencies and halfway houses. One example is our free legal service to help people get their records expunged, or even just get access to their criminal records or help them do a search to see if websites are publishing their mug shots.

We’re very proud of our big policy win in Minnesota where legislators passed “Ban the Box,” which removed the question about criminal records from employment applications.  

We held an open, public conversation with Target last week, where they announced the change to their employment applications in Minnesota. These conversations are critical. What is the impact of that on the business community and what is the role of corporations in trying to close that gap?  And what is the role of the community?

NPH: What would you like to see happen next?  

Justin Terrell: I would like to see corporations like Target actually lead this discussion with their business partners, and I would like to see this conversation happening in the broader business community. We need a more equitable business model that takes into account people with criminal records. There are a million people in our state with criminal records — that’s about one in five people seeking employment. So, we have some serious issues if we don’t change our hiring practices, especially as the job market continues to rebound. You’re going to see a lot of qualified people being locked out of employment and some of the larger companies are already bringing people of color from out of state to work here for them even while so many residents of color are being locked out of jobs. North Minneapolis is home to 60,000 people and the majority are people of color and our largest employer is a grocery store. We cannot economically sustain a city as dynamic as Minneapolis when you have a community of 60,000 people with terribly high unemployment rates. In 2010, unemployment was 5.9 percent statewide, but for African-Americans it was 27 percent.

NPH: What are your barriers right now to achieving your goals?

Justin Terrell:  I think one of our biggest barriers is that it is accepted in society that it’s okay to legally discriminate against people with criminal records — even though we want them to be reintegrated into society. Being employed has a huge impact on health and it’s why we’re in the fight that we’re in — to  try to create more fair access to employment for people with criminal records so that we can lower our recidivism rate and increase income rates in our communities and keep more families together and have healthier communities.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.