Earlier this month, the New Jersey State Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee advanced a bill seeking to bar employers from inquiring about the criminal history of job applicants during initial interviews and on job applications. Captioned as the “Opportunity to Compete Act”, Bill S2124 is aimed at affording job applicants with criminal backgrounds an opportunity to avoid early screening by employers based solely on their troubled pasts. If the legislation is enacted, employers with 15 or more employees over the course of 20 calendar weeks will be precluded from asking an applicant questions about his/her criminal history or from conducting a criminal background check until after making a conditional job offer. Employers breaking the law would face fines starting at $1,000 and capping at $10,000 based on the number of violations. Exemptions from the Opportunity to Compete Act would apply to jobs in which criminal background checks are mandated by law or positions involved in law enforcement and homeland security, amongst others.
Backed by the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, the bill is designed to assist criminal convicts returning to the labor force to live productive lives and avoid recidivism. On the other hand, several employer and industry groups have expressed opposition to the bill, fearing that it unfairly restricts a company’s decisions on who to consider for employment and their means of doing so. However, under the proposed legislation, while employers are prohibited from initially screening for job candidates with criminal backgrounds, they would still be able to later reject such applicants based on a subsequent review of their criminal histories.