Linn County bans criminal history question for county job seekers

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CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (KCRG-TV9) -- It’s often call “ban the box.” That means an employer won’t ask applicants about a criminal background in either an initial interview or on a job application form.

Erika Olson and her father Mike Olson on Wednesday, May 16, 2018. Erika Olson was convicted of a felony nine years ago and has trouble getting employers to look beyond her record. Her father urged county supervisors for years to "ban the box" for county hiring. (Dave Franzman/KCRG-TV9)

And as of Wednesday morning, Linn County Supervisors agreed to ban the box for county job seekers.

County leaders say criminal background checks will still apply for some job categories—such as law enforcement or workers who are around vulnerable populations. That includes the county’s daycare.

But it won’t be the first question applicants see on a form and it will let job seekers who’ve moved on from legal problems earlier in life to get a foot in the door for employment.

Erika Olson says her criminal history makes it extremely tough to get hired. The Marion woman was convicted of third offense drunk driving, a felony, nine years ago.

She’s been clean and sober since with no further legal troubles.

But Olson says when she has to mark the box “yes” to a criminal history, she usually doesn’t hear back on any job opening.

“We’re closing out a lot of potential people on the basis of the word ‘felony’ and not looking at what the problem was,” Olson said.

Olson’s father Mike Olson saw his daughter’s struggles to find decent employment and several years ago began urging Linn County Supervisors to ban the box on county jobs.

It happened Wednesday morning at the formal supervisor’s meeting.

Within minutes of passing a resolution, the county’s Human Resources staff removed the line about criminal history from the online application form.

Supervisor Ben Rogers says it’s a step forward that should be an example to other employers.

“Their criminal background shouldn’t be the story of their life or the thing we totally judge them on. And if they’re a qualified candidate, then we’ll do a background check and if something pops up on a check then we can have a conversation about it,” Rogers said.

Betty Andrews, president of the Iowa-Nebraska chapter of the NAACP, also praised supervisors for the decision.

“To be able to have Iowa’s second largest county lead the way in this area is really going to have a ripple effect around the state,” she said.

Andrews says some national companies already ban the box for initial job interviews and it’s the law in 30 states.

Such legislation remains a priority for the NAACP and Andrews says the action by Linn County Supervisors will be held up as an example in discussions.