With tears in his eyes, Sen. Ed Gomes reached into his past Wednesday in a bid to build support for a measure that would ban private employers from asking job-seekers whether they’d ever been convicted of a crime.
Homeless and hungry at 17, the Bridgeport Democrat said, he broke into a restaurant and swiped a couple of tuna fish sandwiches.
Arrested and facing a judge without a lawyer by his side, a court convicted him of a felony and Gomes headed to prison in Cheshire – sentenced to one to two years behind bars.
When he got out, he tried to join the military but recruiters turned him down. They didn’t want an ex-convict, he said, leaving him stuck in a series of menial, temporary jobs with no future.
Then the U.S. Army drafted him, he said, and took him in despite his criminal record. With an honorable discharge and “a whole lot of good people who did a whole lot of good things” for him, Gomes flourished.
“It just goes to show you that anything can happen to anybody,” Gomes said during a press conference calling for passage of legislation that would prohibit employers from asking about a persons criminal background until the interview stage.
The legislation is headed for a public hearing soon before the Labor and Public Employees Committee.
The co-chairmen of the panel – Gomes and Rep. Peter Tercyak, D-New Britain – said they strongly support the proposal, which has the backing of a coalition of groups that include the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus and the American Civil Liberties Union.
The bill would bar employers from asking about criminal convictions until prospective workers have already reached the interview stage, giving them at least a shot at getting hired for positions that are out of reach today.
For 49-year-old Darrell Walker of New Haven, released from prison in 2009, the necessity of disclosing his conviction has made it impossible for him to secure steady employment. “It’s like another conviction when we get out,” he said.
Walker said that after serving his time, he just wants a chance “to become part of society” and to have the opportunity “to smile and grow” like everyone else.
Jonathan Quesada, a 29-year-old Newington home improvement contractor, said an assault conviction he got at age 17 has kept him from getting promotions and opportunities he would otherwise have had, a “really disappointing” experience.
“You gotta give a person a chance,” Quesada said.
Sandy Lamonico, a 35-year-old student from New Britain who is working on graduate degrees in public health and social work, said that “a desperate and impulsive” mistake at age 19 when she was pregnant and thrown out of her home, has held her back.
She said she was turned down by more than a hundred employers after earning her undergraduate degree.
Lamonico said she realized then that her conviction would be “a stigma I would live with for the rest of my life.”
Hartford’s deputy police chief, Brian Foley, said his department agrees the proposed legislation would be a benefit.
“This is very important for our city,” Foley said. It is “a no-brainer for us to support it.”
Pastor Ashley “AJ” Johnson of Hartford’s Urban Hope Refuge Church said he is “fired up” about the necessity of pushing through the measure.
He said people need to be judged fairly and not rejected “because of a mark in their past.”
Johnson said that men and women of color are the most likely to have criminal charges in their past “and that’s just not fair.”
“It’s time to ‘Ban the Box’ in our state,” Johnson said.
Employment law expert Daniel Schwartz, a partner at Shipman & Goodwin in Hartford, said the proposal would make the already challenging tangle of laws facing potential employers even more complicated.
Schwartz said that similar pieces of legislation have been adopted in other states, most recently in Oregon, as well as in some cities, including New York and Philadelphia. All of them are slightly different, though, which simply adds to the “patchwork of rules” employers have to wade through.
He said the Connecticut bill is roughly the same as other new measures adopted elsewhere, opening the door for employers to ask about convictions after a job offer is on the table. It also lets employers ask from the start if there’s a legal requirement for it, such as for openings in a school, Schwartz said.
Schwartz said businesses are mostly concerned about the growing level of regulation rather than the particulars of the concept, though they are also likely to “wonder what’s really trying to be solved here” since they can still ask about criminal histories before actually making a hire.
He said one reason employers like to ask about criminal convictions is that it allows them to dump applicants whose background checks show they lied about their past.
In any case, Schwartz said, he’s skeptical the change proposed would ultimately have much impact on hiring.
Even so, the proposal appears likely to win the support of the Labor and Public Employees Committee, but its fate beyond that is less clear. The state has been pressing forward in recent years with measures that seek to ease the path for ex-felons trying to rebuild their lives, including Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s “Second Chance” initiative.
Gomes is ready to push hard for the measure. He called it “the most important bill that will come out of the legislature this year.”
“This is so important to everybody,” Tercyak said. “Nobody is safe from the damage that is done from this box that excludes people from the workplace.”
The Connecticut Fair Chance for All Coalition that is coordinating support for the bill has a website about it at ctfairchance.org.