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Senate OKs bill to ban criminal history questions on job applications

February 24, 2019

The state Senate on Friday approved a bill to prohibit private employers from using an application form that asks job-seekers about arrests or criminal convictions.

The measure passed 28-11 and advances to the House of Representatives.

Employers would still be free to inquire about an applicant’s record after reviewing the application, said the bill sponsor, Sen. Bill O’Neill, D-Albuquerque.

His proposal, Senate Bill 96, is intended to help people with a criminal history apply for jobs without being summarily disqualified. If given an opportunity to interview, their chances of finding work and steering clear of trouble increase, O’Neill said.

He calls the bill “Ban the Box.” It’s a reference to applications that require job-seekers to check a box disclosing arrests or convictions.

O’Neill succeeded in pushing a similar bill through the Legislature in 2017, but then-Gov. Susana Martinez vetoed it. Only two senators voted against the measure then.

O’Neill said opposition was much heavier Friday because of a procedural tangle about a late amendment to the bill. Little of the Senate’s debate actually centered on the bill’s attempt to provide second chances.

Eleven Republicans voted against the bill. Sen. Bill Payne of Albuquerque was the most outspoken of the group.

Payne said it would be easy for employers to circumvent the measure’s intent. Nothing would prevent them from putting up a sign or distributing a handout saying they won’t hire felons, he said.

O’Neill doesn’t foresee employers posting the sorts of declarations that Payne mentioned.

“As much as I respect him, that’s not the world I live in,” O’Neill said.

Payne also challenged a section of the bill that sets forth a complaint process for applicants and could subject employers to a violation of the Human Rights Act.

He said he did not like the idea of advocacy groups seeking out cases on behalf of convicted criminals claiming an application process was illegal. He suggested that a small civil fine would be punishment enough for employers that already are under pressure to make ends meet.

The bill moves now to the House of Representatives, where its chances appear excellent.

Rep. Alonzo Baldonado, R-Los Lunas, is sponsoring the measure in that chamber. Like O’Neill, Baldonado has long supported a system in which applicants with checkered pasts aren’t automatically disqualified through an application.

In addition, Democrats control the House 46-24, and they have traditionally supported O’Neill’s bill.

The state government hasn’t asked about criminal history on its employment applications since 2010.

All of its boards, departments and agencies are barred from inquiring about a conviction on an employment application. State managers are able to seek that information in later interviews.

The bill regulating state government applications was sponsored by a Republican, then-Sen. Clint Harden of Clovis, and signed into law by then-Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat.