Sean Miller is 38, married with two children and has a bachelor's degree in which he could qualify as a paralegal.
But when the nine-year Nebraska resident has applied for certain better-paying jobs, he has been turned down, he said, because of a criminal conviction at age 16.
He was even turned down as an Uber driver, he said.
Miller was asking the Business and Labor Committee on Monday to send a bill (LB254) to the full Legislature that would create the Fair Chance Hiring Act, requiring a prospective employer — those with more than 15 employees — to evaluate a job applicant's qualifications, without first knowing about the applicant's history of criminal law violations.
Omaha Sen. John McCollister, who introduced the bill, reiterated it would not prohibit an employer from asking about criminal history, but would just not allow it on the job application.
In effect, the bill would remove criminal history from having any disqualifying impact, McCollister said, if the applicant is otherwise qualified for the position. The bill would provide exceptions for jobs — such as those related to law enforcement, schools and child care providers — for which criminal history is a disqualifier under other state or federal laws.
The bill was introduced in 2017 as the ban-the-box law (LB429), which would also have eliminated a check box on the application asking about a prior criminal record. It was advanced to the full Legislature then, but languished there and died at the end of the 2018 session.
More than 150 cities and counties in 33 states and the District of Columbia have adopted a version of the ban-the-box law. In Nebraska, most public employers, since 2014, already cannot inquire about criminal records on applications.
The bill was supported by George Dungan, a Lancaster County deputy public defender, and others.
Dungan said the bill could help reduce recidivism and give former inmates the ability to further their rehabilitation. Every individual actually deserves the dignity of being judged for who they are and not necessarily what they've done, he said.
With a positive effect on keeping people from returning to prison, it could help ease prison overcrowding, and slow prison population growth, and benefit the state economically, Dungan said.
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Spike Eickholt, an attorney with ACLU of Nebraska, said finding good employment is the most likely indicator that a person is not going to return to the criminal justice system. This bill could give former inmates a chance to get an interview if they are qualified for the job.
"It gives them a chance to explain themselves," he said.
Omaha Sen. Steve Lathrop said there might be a whole list of things that would make an employer realize, "'Oh, yeah, you're not a risk at all.' But we can't get them through the door," he said.
Still, a number of lobbyists, representing businesses or business organizations, testified in opposition to the bill. Some of them didn't appear to understand that, with the bill, an employer could choose only people he or she felt were qualified for the job to interview, and then ask on that first interview if the applicant had ever been convicted of a crime.
Robert Hallstrom, representing the National Federation for Independent Businesses, said the bill would propose another step in the hiring process. It would be valuable to know at the earliest possible time if an applicant had a criminal record.
Hallstrom said he didn't believe every applicant who checked the box was being denied an interview. "There are plenty of individuals, I would imagine, that are being hired by small businesses, that have criminal records."
Erin Ebler-Rolf, an attorney testifying on behalf of the Lincoln Independent Business Association, said that with the bill, there was no difference between full-time, part-time and seasonal employees. And smaller businesses would fall under the bill even though they have more than 15 employees only at certain times.
The bill might also force employers to waste their time by interviewing applicants who should not be legitimately considered for a specific job because of their criminal record.
"LIBA believes that employers should be able to decide what policies are appropriate for screening their applicants in a manner that is consistent with current state and federal laws and regulations. It is the employers' reputations that are on the line," she said.
Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers reminded opponents that even with the check box for criminal convictions, an applicant could choose to not tell the truth and not check the box.