Waterloo businesses adjust after 'ban the box' ordinance passes

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WATERLOO, Iowa (KCRG) - Employees at The Ivy Trellis Cards & Gifts are still getting used to the store’s new location in downtown Waterloo.

Waterloo's “Fair Chance Initiative” passed in a 4-2 city council vote on Oct. 7, 2019. (KCRG File)

“It’ll be a year in November,” owner Mary Heller said.

Now Heller will also have to get used to a new ordinance in the city that keeps her from asking about job applicants’ criminal records until after she’s offered them a job.

“I have kind of mixed feelings,” Heller said.

The “Fair Chance Initiative” passed in a 4-2 city council vote Monday, a month after the ordinance’s final vote was delayed because some council members were still undecided.

Heller said she uses caution when hiring anyone, regardless of their criminal background, but said she might hesitate if someone had admitted during the interview process that they had convictions on their record.

“You always worry whether somebody will fall back into the same thing they did before, theft or whatever it might be,” Heller said.

However, she said she does believe people deserve a second chance and supports the ordinance.

“You want them to make them good citizens, that they can contribute to society as well as take care of themselves, and you don’t want them to fall back into doing what they did before,” Heller said.

Abraham L. Funchess Jr., executive director of the Waterloo Commission on Human Rights, said they had been advocating for this type of ordinance for about a decade.

“It’s just very much needed. It’s the right thing to do,” Funchess said.

Funchess said “banning the box” is a big step toward helping people get a second chance after they’ve served their time.

“Historically, we understand that most times, when you check the box, employers, whether they admit or not, they have a tendency to throw these applications away,” Heller said.

Under the ordinance, businesses can only run a background check after they've extended a conditional job offer. After the background check, the ordinance allows employers to rescind the job offer if they have a “legitimate business reason.”

“We don’t expect employers to put child molesters in a school,” Funchess said. “We don’t expect employers to hire people who have embezzled money in banks.”

Opponents of the ordinance had argued in previous city council meetings that waiting for the state to pass this type of law first would be better than Waterloo taking the lead, but Funchess disagree.

“Justice delayed is justice denied,” Funchess countered. “We have the ability and the power to make a decision on the home front.”

While the ordinance is now on the books, discussion about it hasn't yet wrapped up. City council is meeting next week to talk about some possible amendments to it, which Funchess said might include adding language about which businesses the ordinance covers and what happens after a business decides to rescind a job offer.