By Kelli Kyle and Ciara Lucas
The Moosewood Cafe in Ithaca recently removed the question about job candidates’ prior convictions from its employment application. This action is part of a larger movement known as “Ban the Box,” which advocates for fair hiring practices of formerly incarcerated people.
More than 100 cities and counties in the United States have joined the movement in some form, including the cities of Syracuse and Rochester. On September 21, New York State enacted its own “fair chance” policy, which does not require applicants to disclose criminal history unless the agency has interviewed the candidate and has an interest in hiring the individual.
Laura Branca, one of Moosewood’s 19 co-owners, said the decision to ban the box was easy. Branca said she decided to take another look at the job application, and was surprised to see a section asking about prior convictions, because it is not relevant to the type of work Moosewood offers.
“We’ve removed that question from our initial application,” Branca said. “What we wanted to do is eliminate screening out people at the very beginning of a hiring process.”
Moosewood is not the only local business keeping criminal history off its application. At the Autumn Leaves Used Bookstore in the Commons, potential employees submit resumes, instead of filling out a traditional application. Joe Wetmore, the store’s owner, said the prior convictions question is something he never considered.
“We all have parts of our background that we’re not proud of,” Wetmore said. “That doesn’t make the totality of the person, and it’s not that relevant to the job that I’m looking for.”
Branca said she does not know how the decision will affect the applicant pool. However, she said she feels the revised application will no longer discourage formerly incarcerated or convicted people from seeking employment at the restaurant.
“Without the question, I think they will fill out the application and leave it with us, because it’s not presenting a barrier that’s exclusionary right up front,” Branca said.
Branca said she is not opposed to background checks, while Wetmore said he questions their accuracy.
“I think these background organization checks are really problematic,” Wetmore said. “We put a stigma on being accused of a crime, let alone convicted of one.”
In New York State, it is illegal to discriminate against job applicants based on criminal history. Even with this policy in place, the Ban the Box movement suggests that people who check yes in the “convicted a felony” box are treated differently.
All of Us or None is the parent organization of the Ban the Box movement. The organization advocates rights for formerly incarcerated people and aims to change the criminal justice system. Staff coordinator Alex Berliner said the stereotypes of former criminals discourage employers from hiring them.
“We have this narrative that there’s so much crime and that everybody who goes to prison is a crazy person, and we should be afraid of them,” Berliner said. “When in reality that’s not who they are.”
Through law-making and grassroots organization, All of Us or None intends to restore benefits to former convicts, including employment, housing and the right to vote.
“Having these [discrimination] policies in place are a first step, but legislation is never going to be enough,” Berliner said. “There’s also challenging the dominant narrative and challenging the story about the people who have been incarcerated.”