Watson Coleman, Green, Spencer, Wimberly & Sumter’s ‘Opportunity to Compete Act’ Advanced by Assembly Panel

Legislation sponsored by Assembly Democrats Bonnie Watson Coleman, Jerry Green, L. Grace Spencer, Benjie Wimberly and Shavonda Sumter to give all New Jerseyans the opportunity to compete for work was advanced Tuesday by an Assembly panel.

The Opportunity to Compete Act (A-1999) provides individuals who have a criminal record with certain protections when they seek employment.

“We know that eliminating barriers to employment is a key component of a sensible policy to promote growth and economic development,” said Watson Coleman (D-Mercer/Hunterdon). “As a result of this bill, hundreds of thousands of New Jersey residents will have access to the American Dream– a chance to rise or fall on your own merit.”

“I am constantly contacted by people who simply want an opportunity to compete,” said Green (D-Union/Middlesex/Somerset). “Many of these applicants get eliminated from consideration simply by marking off a box, many of them productive, creative and capable workers.”

“This is a way to ensure that employers have access to a pool that they might have otherwise ignored,” said Spencer (D-Essex). “I think it’s an issue of fairness and second chances. People who have rebuilt their lives should not be forever punished. Second chances are what America is all about.”

“All anyone is asking for is the opportunity to compete,” said Wimberly (D-Passaic/Bergen). “The ability to find a job is akin to a civil right, and many people are being denied that right from the get-go because of a mistake in their past, and that’s not right.”

“It serves not just the individual, but the state to allow people with criminal histories to become productive members of society,” said Sumter (D-Passaic/Bergen). “Unless we want them to resort to the sort of behavior that got them in trouble in the first place, why deny them the opportunity?”

The bill specifically prohibits employers from inquiring, either orally or in writing, about a candidate’s criminal record and from requiring a candidate to complete an application that makes such inquiries during the initial employment application process. An employer is not permitted to make inquiries concerning a candidate’s criminal record until the initial employment process has concluded, except that the employer may make inquiries during the application process about any aspect of a candidate’s criminal record that the candidate voluntarily discloses. Employers are not precluded under the bill from refusing to hire a candidate for employment based upon the candidate’s criminal record.

The “initial employment application process” is defined in the bill as the period beginning when an applicant for employment first makes an inquiry to an employer about a prospective employment position or job vacancy or when an employer first makes any inquiry to an applicant for employment about a prospective employment position or job vacancy, and ending when an employer has conducted an interview and determined the applicant is qualified, whether in person or by any other means, and selected the applicant as the employer’s first choice to fill the position.

The bill also prohibits an employer from knowingly or purposefully publishing an advertisement soliciting candidates for employment which states that the employer will not consider a candidate who has been arrested for or convicted of a crime or offense.

The bill’s restrictions regarding employer inquiries and advertising do not apply if:

· The position is law enforcement, correction, the judiciary, homeland security or emergency management;

· A criminal history background record check is required for the position by law;

· The position, by law, precludes employment of a person with an arrest for or a conviction of a crime or offense;

· The employer is restricted from specified business activities based on the criminal record of its employees; or

· The employment sought or being considered is for a position designated by the employer to be part of a program or systematic effort designed predominantly or exclusively to encourage the employment of persons who have been arrested for or convicted of crimes or offenses.

An employer who violates the provision is liable for a penalty of up to $1,000 for the first violation, $5,000 for the second violation and $10,000 for each subsequent violation, though evidence that an employer violated the bill’s provisions is not admissible in any other legal proceeding and the bill does not create a private cause of action against an employer who has violated the provisions.

Finally, the bill prohibits the governing body of a county or municipality from adopting any ordinance, resolution, law, rule or regulation regarding criminal histories in the employment context, except for ordinances adopted to regulate county or municipal operations. The bill’s provisions preempt any ordinance, resolution, law, rule or regulation in effect prior to the bill’s effective date regarding criminal histories in the employment context, except for ordinances adopted to regulate county or municipal operations.

The bill takes effect on the first day of the seventh month next following the date of enactment, but permits the Commissioner of Labor and Workforce Development to take anticipatory administrative actions.

The bill was released by the Assembly Budget Committee.