Dozens of Seattle businesses have been charged with job discrimination in the last year, but it's who they're accused of discriminating against that has some business owners upset.
Records from Seattle's Office of Civil Rights show that 40 businesses have been charged with violating the Job Assistance Ordinance, a 2013 law aimed at giving ex-cons a better chance at getting a job. It prohibits businesses from advertising that a job requires a criminal background check or asking about criminal history on a job application.
"It's kind of frustrating. All we're trying to do is protect our business. Protect our customers," said Timothy Austen of B&Z Moving, which was charged in 2014 with violating the ordinance.
A job ad B&Z posted on Craigslist stated that anyone applying to the company to work as a mover would be required to pass a background check.
Austen says state law requires moving companies to screen an employee's background and anyone with convictions for violent crimes, theft or sexual misconduct can't be hired. So he was surprised when a letter arrived in the mail charging his company with violating a Seattle law for stating the background check policy in his ad.
"I was pretty shocked. We're required by law to do background checks and they're telling us they're mad because we're doing background checks," said Austen.
"The law does not exclude an employer from eventually conducting a background check," said a statement from the office of Seattle City Councilman Bruce Harrell, who sponsored the ordinance.
Harrell says nearly a half million people in King County have criminal records and the ordinance has received "overwhelmingly positive feedback and results from both the business community and individuals with a record."
The law prohibits excluding job candidates from interviewing with employers based solely on criminal background checks. But it also says that after the initial interview and screening, a company can require a background check.
The goal is to at least give ex-cons a chance to explain themselves and what they can do for a potential employer, before criminal background comes into play.
"I get a chance to tell them who I am," said two-time felon Thomas Pilgrim.
Pilgrim says he had many job interviews before the law went into effect and that his criminal history proved the deal-breaker.
"I've seen the attitude or the enthusiasm go down with the employer, and I pretty much knew I didn't have the job," said Pilgrim, who served two prison terms for drug use and sales.
Pilgrim now has a full time job thanks to the Millionair Club, a Seattle charity that finds jobs for the homeless.
Millionair Club Executive Director Jim Miller says the charity changed its "no felons" policy when the new ordinance went into effect. He says the change has opened employers to a new pool of eager job candidates.
Miller says the Millionair Club still runs background checks and is careful to place applicants in jobs where an applicant's criminal history won't be a concern for the employer.
"We try to determine the likelihood they're going to repeat, and we found it's been very, very low since we adopted this policy," said Miller.
Still, some owners are upset their businesses aren't exempt from the Seattle law.
Philip Siers and his wife paid $2,000 in legal fees to battle a discrimination charge the City of Seattle filed against their dog walking business.
"You don't want anyone with a criminal background entering someone's home unattended," said Siers, whose got in trouble for a Craigslist ad stating that job candidates would have to pass a criminal background check.
"We fought back. We hired an attorney," said Siers. His case was settled when he and his wife agreed to change the offending language in their ad.
The Office of Civil rights says it has recovered $20,000 in settlement money from the 40 businesses it charged with violating the ordinance. Some of the businesses were cleared of any wrongdoing or were found to be exempt from the law. Businesses in which employees have access to children or vulnerable adults are exempt from the law.
Councilman Bruce Harrell's full statement on the law:
Since the implementation of the Job Assistance Ordinance on November 1, 2013, I have received overwhelming positive feedback and results, both from the business community and individuals with a record. The law does not exclude an employer from eventually conducting a background check; it instead, prohibits employers from automatically excluding individuals with any arrest or conviction record from consideration for employment. We want all individuals to be given an opportunity to interview and explain their criminal record. Before my law, everybody with a criminal record was excluded. According to the University of Washington's Law, Society and Justice Program, approximately 409,000 people in King County have criminal convictions. Giving people a second chance and gaining jobs is critical for public safety. The Ordinance requires a report every 6 months, for 2 years, on number of complaints, investigations, and dispositions, so we can have the most effective law for both the business community and residents seeking jobs."
Harrell's office also recommended a city-produced video about the law.