Criminal background checks are increasingly common in the hiring process. They often present a major stumbling block for people who are trying to put their lives together after a criminal conviction. Many employers simply refuse to hire anyone with a felony record, regardless of whether the offense has any relation to the job a person is seeking. Employment laws in New Jersey and other states are trying to rectify the situation. The New Jersey Legislature passed the Opportunity to Compete Act (OTCA) in 2014. Federal law does not include specific protections against discrimination based on criminal history, but several provisions of federal law can indirectly affect how employers conduct background checks on job applicants.
When it passed the OTCA, the state legislature recognized the importance of “[r]emoving obstacles to employment for people with criminal records.” It found that as many as 65 million people nationwide faced difficulty finding jobs because of their criminal records, and that up to ninety percent of employers use criminal background checks to some extent during the hiring process. Since having a job “significantly reduces the risk of recidivism” for people with criminal histories, the state legislature concluded that it had to act. The OTCA does not go as far as many similar laws, but it is a step in the right direction.
The OTCA is part of a group of laws passed by state and local governments around the country known as “Ban the Box” laws. The OTCA prohibits employers from asking New Jersey job applicants about criminal history at the beginning of the hiring process. The “box” refers to the “yes/no” checkbox found on many job application forms asking whether someone has ever been convicted of a criminal offense. Checking the box, which indicates that an applicant has one or more convictions, has often resulted in the application going directly into employers’ “rejected” piles.