Written By David Katz
Recently, in a 6-3 vote, New Jersey’s Assembly Labor Committee advanced a bill (A-3837), known as the Opportunity to Compete Act, that would prohibit New Jersey employers with 15 or more employees from asking candidates about their criminal history on employment applications, and from conducting criminal background checks on applicants prior to a conditional job offer. If passed, this legislation would become one of the toughest “ban the box” measures in the nation (derived from the ubiquitous check box on employment applications inquiring whether an applicant has a criminal record), and would place several new administrative burdens on employers. New Jersey would join the 64 states, counties and cities (including Newark, New Jersey) that have already enacted laws aimed at benefiting job seekers with a criminal history. And many states (including New York) prohibit employers from disqualifying an applicant based on a conviction absent a clear nexus between the nature of the conviction and the job sought.
Under the proposed legislation, only after the employer determines the candidate is qualified and provides a conditional job offer, may it inquire about and consider the individual’s criminal history. Then, before the employer may look into the candidate’s criminal history, it must first provide the candidate with a written notice of the inquiry (along with a “Notice of Rights) and obtain the candidate’s consent.
The bill authorizes employers to consider in their employment decision making process convictions for certain serious crimes regardless of when the crime occurred. These crimes include murder or attempted murder, arson, a sex offense for which the offender served time in State prison and is required to register as a sex offender, robbery, kidnapping, human trafficking, possession of weapons, burglary, aggravated assault and terrorism. Separately, employers may only consider other crimes of the 1st through 4th degree if the crime was committed within the previous 10 years. Employers may also consider convictions for disorderly persons offenses that occurred within the last 5 years and pending criminal charges until the case is dismissed. The bill further provides that if any of the candidate’s criminal history is subject to consideration by employers due to the fact that it occurred within 10 years for crimes of the 1st through 4th degree, or 5 years for disorderly persons offenses, then the employer may also consider any prior criminal history, regardless of when it occurred.
Under the bill, when making an employment decision, employers may not consider or require a candidate to disclose or reveal any arrest or criminal accusation made against the candidate which is not then pending or which did not result in a conviction. Records which have been erased or expunged, records of an executive pardon or legally nullified records may not be considered by employers, nor may the employer consider an adjudication of delinquency of a juvenile, any violation of a municipal ordinance or any record which has been sealed.
The proposed legislation requires employers to make a good faith effort to discuss with the candidate any questions or concerns related to the candidate’s criminal history and provide the candidate with an opportunity to explain and contextualize any crime or offense, provide evidence of rehabilitation, and rebut any inaccuracies in the criminal history.
In deciding whether to hire a candidate, employers must consider the results of any criminal history inquiry in combination with factors such as: (1) information provided about the degree of the candidate’s rehabilitation and good conduct; (2) information provided about the accuracy of the criminal record; (3) the amount of time that has elapsed since the conviction or release from custody; (4) the nature and circumstances surrounding the crime(s); and (5) the duties and settings of the job. This last factor—job-relatedness—is critical, as employers may not disqualify a candidate if the nature of his or her conviction bears no relationship to the job sought. The reasonable consideration of these factors must be documented by employers on a “Criminal Record Consideration Form.”
If an employer makes an adverse employment decision, including rescinding a job offer, after a discussion of a candidate’s criminal history, the employer must provide the candidate in one package by registered mail: (1) written notification of the adverse employment decision; (2) a copy of the results of the criminal history inquiry; and (3) a completed copy of the Criminal Record Consideration Form.
A candidate who received an adverse employment decision has 10 business days after receipt of this written information to provide evidence to the employer related to the accuracy and relevance of the results of the criminal history inquiry. Employers may, but are not required to, hold the position open for the candidate. Employers who uphold an adverse employment decision after considering any additional information provided by the candidate are required to provide to the candidate a written notice of the final decision within 45 days of receipt of the additional information.
There is good news for employers here: the bill does not provide applicants with the ability to sue them in court for a violation of the law. Instead, the applicant would have to file a complaint with the New Jersey’s Division on Civil Rights (“DCR”) in the Department of Law and Public Safety, and the DCR may impose civil fines ranging from $500 to $7,500 depending on the number of employees the employer has and whether the employer has committed previous violations. Additionally, as noted above, the bill does not apply to smaller employers with under 15 employees. Moreover, employers can take solace in that the bill would give employers the highest protection against negligent hiring/retention suits of any state in the nation in the form of a “grossly negligent” standard, meaning that there must be a finding that the employer consciously acted with a reckless disregard for the safety of others in its hiring decision.
There is no certainty that the proposed Opportunity to Compete Act will be passed into law in its current form or any other form for that matter. Governor Chris Christie, who could very well exercise his veto power, has not indicated whether or not he supports the bill. Needless to say, we will closely monitor this legislation.