By Frank Main, Staff Reporter
As a teen, Ald. Walter Burnett (27th) went to prison for robbing a savings and loan.
He eventually got a pardon and became the first felon elected to the City Council. It made him sensitive to the struggles of ex-offenders seeking jobs after prison.
That’s why he’s backing Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s proposed “ban the box” ordinance that would bar companies with fewer than 15 employees from asking about criminal histories on job applications.
A company could conduct a background check only when a candidate is deemed qualified for a job. The ordinance would mirror a state law for businesses with 15 or more employees.
“This is a common sense move that will ensure consistent rules for businesses of all sizes and ensure people who have left prison and are trying to turn their life around can be evaluated on their abilities,” Burnett said.
The state law goes into effect Jan. 1 — as would the proposed ordinance to be introduced at the next City Council meeting on Oct. 8.
City Hall, Cook County and the state don’t ask about criminal backgrounds on their job applications.
Burnett said private companies had turned him down after prison, but the county hired him as a draftsman — a trade he learned in prison — and he worked on road reconstruction projects.
“They didn’t care about my background,” he said.
Michael Negron, chief of policy for Emanuel, estimated there are more than 40,000 businesses in Chicago that each have fewer than 15 employees.
The city might conduct spot checks of businesses —big and small —for violations of the “ban the box” rules, Negron said. The fines could reach $1,000 per violation.
While big companies will change their applications because of the state law, some owners of small businesses said the proposed ordinance wouldn’t have an impact on them. Parto Naderi, owner of a hair salon at 507 N. Wells, said he doesn’t ask applicants if they’ve been arrested.
“In my business, we don’t go digging too much into the past of the people,” he said. “Everything is apparent to me in the interview and the trial period.”
Still, Burnett said he knows of corner groceries and other small establishments that turn away ex-offenders early in the application process.
“It’s something we’re trying to change,” he said. “Jobs are a crime-fighting tool.”