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Senator Sandra Cunningham listens to testimony during the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee hearing.

TRENTON — Legislation sponsored by Senators Sandra B. Cunningham, Raymond Lesniak and Teresa Ruiz that would prohibit employers from inquiring about a job applicant’s criminal history until after the initial interview or on a job application cleared the Senate today.

The bill, S-2124, entitled “The Opportunity to Compete Act,” would prohibit employers from inquiring, either orally or in writing, about a job applicant’s criminal record during the initial interview process and also bar them from requiring an applicant to complete an application that includes questions about their criminal background. Employers would be allowed to inquire about an applicant’s criminal record after the first interview and must follow federal guidelines when weighing the applicant’s criminal history in its hiring decision.

The bill also provides several exemptions to the law, such as jobs in law enforcement or employers specifically engaged in hiring people convicted of crimes. Cunningham has spent hours listening to testimony over the past two years, and the legislation incorporates many of the concerns voiced by stakeholders.

The National Employment Law Project estimates roughly 70 million Americans—or one in four adults—have a criminal record that may show up on a routine background check report. 

“One mistake should not result in a lifetime of economic hardship. As a society, we need to do all we can to help people with conviction histories to reintegrate into the community so they can provide for their families and themselves,” said Cunningham (D-Hudson). “This bill is not just about fairness for individuals, it’s also about creating economic opportunities that will benefit society as a whole.”

“This bill gives residents who have made mistakes in their life a real chance at securing a job and becoming contributing members of society,” said Lesniak (D-Union). “Without these common sense protections, many employers will simply exclude talented applicants before they are given a chance to make a solid impression.”

“One of the greatest impediments for people who have made a mistake is the mere opportunity to be considered for a job,” said Ruiz (D-Essex). “This bill is a step in the right direction and will afford New Jerseyans a second chance. It provides them with the same opportunity that everyone else gets to market themselves to a potential employer without any prejudices and secure a positive economic future.”

According to the National Employment Law Project, as of April 2014, there are twelve states with statewide ban the box legislation: Colorado, California, Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Hawaii, Illinois Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nebraska, Rhode Island and New Mexico.  Of the twelve states, Massachusetts, Hawaii, Minnesota and Rhode Island’s laws are the only statewide laws that cover private employers. New Jersey would be the fifth state to expand the protections to the private sector.

An employer that violates the provisions of the bill would be liable for a civil penalty of up to $1,000 for the first violation, $5,000 for the second violation, and $10,000 for each subsequent violation. 

The bill was approved by a vote of 32-1 and now heads to the governor’s desk.  

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