Should Philly make it harder to refuse jobs for ex-cons?

Lame-duck Philadelphia City Councilwoman Donna Reed Miller has watered down her ex-offender anti-discrimination bill and is going to give it another hearing.

Pennsylvania state law limits employers from refusing to hire ex-offenders unless the crime for which they were convicted "relates to suitability for employment."

Philadelphia should go farther to prevent discrimination against people convicted of crimes, says City Councilwoman Donna Reed Miller, who represents Germantown-Mount Airy-Chestnut Hill.

Under Reed Miller's latest version, which gets a hearing in her Committee on Public Safety, Wed. March 16 at 10 a.m., an employer won't be able to ask about prior convictions "during the application, nor can you ask during the first interview," her policy director William Nesheiwat told me.

"It gives (ex-offenders) an opportunity to be judged on their merits, at least through the first interview. After the first interview, the employer is permitted to take any reasonable legal action to determine the criminal background."

In a bulletin to employers, Cozen O'Connor attorneys Edward J. Hazzouri and Carrie B. Rosen say Massachusetts has passed a similar law. They say the current Philly bill will limit the kinds of background checks an employer can do. Hiring private background-check companies is OK; checking court records directly may not be OK.

Why go beyond what state law already demands? "When people check the box" admitting criminal convictions, "they never get a call back," even if the conviction wouldn't affect their ability to do the job they're applying for, Neshewiat says. This way, "it gives you an opportunity to meet them." He figures it's harder to discriminate when you've met the would-be employee and seen he (or she) looks able to do the job.

The earlier version of the bill, which failed to pass, was a "stronger antidiscrimination piece of legislation," he added. It "prohibited a background check til after a conditional employment offer" has been made. But employers feared they would be found legally liable if they happened to pick a non-offender over an offender" before they ran a background check.

"We do not want to sacrifice or harm businesses. We don't want to require someone to hire an applicant with a criminal  record." Banks, childcare agencies, security firms have good reason not to hire ex-convicts, and won't be forced to, Neshewiat said.