Rhode Island has become the fourth state to pass a Ban the Box law affecting both public and private employers, joining Massachusetts, Hawaii and Minnesota. Ban the Box refers to laws prohibiting the box on job applications that prospective employees are asked to check off if they ever have been convicted of a crime.
Effective January 1, 2014, SB 357 will amend the state's Fair Employment Practices Act to restrict employers from asking criminal history questions at the initial stage of the application process. The new law will apply to employers with four or more employees. It aims to give rehabilitated job candidates a fair chance to re-enter the workforce.
The law empowers both the Rhode Island Commission for Human Rights and the state's courts to provide a range of remedies to aggrieved applicants, including damages, attorney's fees and costs.
Under the measure, Rhode Island employers may still ask about an applicant's criminal background during a job interview and any time afterwards, but not on job applications. In addition, limited exceptions are provided at the application stage. These cover:
Applications for law enforcement agency positions;
Situations where federal or state law prevents an employer from hiring persons convicted of a specified crime; and
Where a standard fidelity bond is a job requirement and one or more of the prior offenses would disqualify an applicant from obtaining such a bond.
Trend Towards Private Employers
Several other states have Ban the Box laws or policies that prohibit public employers from asking criminal history questions on job applications. However, Rhode Island's new law continues a noticeable trend towards preventing private employers from asking these questions at the initial application stage as well.
In recent months, Minnesota extended its Ban the Box law to cover private employers. Meanwhile, Seattle and Buffalo passed measures in June to join Philadelphia and Newark, NJ as cities with Ban the Box ordinances applying to all or most employers.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has taken the position that no employer should ask about criminal history on job applications. The EEOC also made clear in an April 2012 Enforcement Guidance that before any employer precludes an applicant with a criminal record from employment, it should engage in an individualized assessment to give the applicant a chance to explain the circumstances and why they should not exclude him or her from employment.