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HomeNewsLocal governmentSenators Consider Measures Concerning Background Checks in Employment Application Process

Senators Consider Measures Concerning Background Checks in Employment Application Process

V.I. Labor Department and the V.I. Department of Personnel went before the Senate to discuss Bill 35-0155. (Screenshot from V.I. Legislature Facebook live stream)

A bill to give former felons a fair chance at employment, despite a criminal history, gained unanimous support from the Senate Committee on Homeland Security, Justice and Public Safety on Tuesday and will now advance to the Committee on Rules and Judiciary for further consideration.

Bill 35-0155 sponsor Sen. Donna Frett-Gregory, who told the committee she has worked on the legislation for three years, hailed its advancement as a “win-win proposition for returning citizens, their families, employers, and the Virgin Islands as a whole.”

Bill 35-0155 concerns amendments to background checks in the employment application process. It would repeal Title 24, Chapter 17, Subchapter II of the Virgin Islands Code, “Limited Use of Criminal Records in Hiring Practices,” and enact in its place “The Fair Chance for Employment Act” relative to criminal record checks in the employment application process. It also would amend Title 3, Chapter 25, Subchapter I, Section 452, requiring the director of Personnel to develop and implement fair chance hiring policies.

Essentially, the measure would prevent employers from inquiring about a job applicant’s criminal history until after they have been interviewed and offered a job.

“It gives formerly incarcerated citizens a chance to be considered for employment based on their merit and prevents them from being stigmatized and rejected outright based solely on their past criminal record,” said Gregory. “Giving formerly incarcerated individuals a fair shot at getting a job reduces recidivism, supports children and families, expands our workforce and grows our economy,” she said.

Nesha Christian-Hendrickson, assistant commissioner and legal counsel at the Labor Department, said the agency was in agreement with the spirit of the bill, “with a few caveats,” mainly concerning provisions requiring employers to let applicants know if they were rejected due to a criminal history. She said that could lead to tense or even dangerous situations.

“The bill attempts to provide additional opportunities for those who may have had previous convictions or other criminal contact. We are all aware that there are times in the past when individuals make one or two bad choices, and these choices then spiral their lives in a negative direction. In keeping with the V.I. Department of Labor vision to protect, improve, and employ the Virgin Islands labor force we agree that second chances are needed,” said Christian-Hendrickson.

She also noted that Fair Chance in Employment acts are in place on the mainland and are intended to ensure that every applicant receives a fair shot at a job.

According to Frett-Gregory, 36 states, the District of Columbia, more than 150 cities and counties and the federal government have all passed “fair chance for employment or ban the box” laws or policies that remove questions about an applicant’s criminal history from a job application.

Personnel Assistant Director Florine Audain-Hassel, however, said that her department did not support the bill as amended because it should not fall under Personnel. “We do not support this policy being put under the Director of Personnel. It should remain where it is at — at the Department of Labor,” she said.

“We do not send out rejections to applicants based on their criminal history as this practice is discriminatory,” Audain-Hassel added.

Introducing the bill, Frett-Gregory told lawmakers that it doesn’t force employers to hire anyone, nor does it prevent them from conducting a criminal background check. “It only delays that background check until later in the onboarding process – after the employer has met with an otherwise qualified applicant and has extended a job offer,” she said.

Certain employers such as public and private schools, childcare centers, nursing homes, and senior citizen centers, which offer programs and services to minors or vulnerable adults, are exempted under the bill. Also exempted are law enforcement agencies and local and federal employers that are required by law to hire only applicants who have no criminal history.

“We can always debate what kinds of employers should be exempted or which applicants should be covered, but what cannot be debated is that fair chance for employment or ban the box legislation works,” said Frett-Gregory.

“The Virgin Islands can no longer afford to pay lip service to rehabilitation and reentry while leaving policies in place that keep our neighbors, family members, and friends from getting a foot in the door – a door that leads to gainful employment, economic stability, and support for children and families,” she said.

Senators attending Tuesday’s meeting along with Frett-Gregory included Kenneth L. Gittens, Ray Fonseca, Angel L. Bolques Jr., Diane T. Capehart, Dwayne M. DeGraff, Novelle E. Francis Jr., Alma Francis Heyliger and Franklin D. Johnson.

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