LINCOLN — Erik Delaney figured he’d paid his debt to society after he completed a 17-month prison sentence for possession of drugs.
He embraced sobriety and became a licensed substance abuse counselor, but he said his punishment continued.
Because when he applied for jobs, he truthfully marked the box on the application that asked: “Have you ever been convicted of a crime?”
That, Delaney said, was “the tipping point” in rejecting his employment.
He and others filled a hearing room at the State Capitol on Monday to urge that Nebraska join 10 other states that “ban the box” on job applications that ask about past convictions of crime.
“I represent one of the guys who are trying to change,” Delaney said. “Do we want them to be contributing members of society or don’t we?”
State Sen. Bill Avery of Lincoln introduced the ban-the-box bill before the Legislature’s Business and Labor Committee.
Legislative Bill 932 would apply only to public employers, such as cities, counties and state government. Law enforcement positions would be exempt, as would jobs dealing with children, the elderly or disabled that bar employment of those with criminal records.
Avery said employers could still ask and conduct searches about criminal backgrounds, but only after an applicant had passed the first stage of the process, which is filing out the job application.
“Usually that’s where the application ends. Once you check the box, you don’t get to the next stage,” the senator said. “Let them get past that first pre-screening so they can establish if they are qualified.”
Avery estimated the bill would impact 30,000 people who are in prison or have served time.
Because obtaining a job is so important in successful re-entry into society, Avery said, he hopes to include his bill in a package of prison reform legislation being crafted by veteran Sen. Brad Ashford of Omaha.
Among the supporters of LB 932 were representatives of the Urban League of Nebraska, ACLU, the Omaha-based Empowerment Network, Nebraska Appleseed Center and the City of Omaha.
“This is an important step to provide equal employment opportunities,” said Mayor Jean Stothert in a press release.
She said that while the city currently asks about criminal backgrounds on job applications, it is not opposed to removing the question.
“We are working hard in Omaha to assist at-risk youth and young adults with job training and placement,” Stothert said. “Many of these applicants want and deserve a second chance and have the potential to be good employees.”
No one testified against LB 932. But Kathy Siefken of the Nebraska Grocery Industry Association said her group is concerned that such ban-the-box laws might expand to private employers. Lots of entry-level jobs involve handling money, Siefken said, and employers need to know about criminal backgrounds.
“You have to be able to trust your employees,” she said.
But Avery said he believes employers still will get the information they need. LB 932 will also allow applicants to explain their past, he said.
The senator said he intentionally didn’t included private employers in his bill after seeing a broader, ban-the-box proposal shot down two years ago.
“Too much change in one bill is often the recipe for defeat,” Avery said.
Delaney, a single parent to three kids, eventually was able to get a job as a car salesman. He recently applied to law school, Avery added.
“He’s a good citizen,” the senator said.