Attorney General Maura Healey has cited 21 employers for violating the state’s “ban the box” law, which prohibits businesses from asking about job candidates’ criminal backgrounds on employment applications.
The investigation targeted more than 70 Cambridge and Boston businesses with paper application forms, part of an ongoing effort to educate employers about the 2010 law. The attorney general reached agreements with four large employers to come into compliance: Five Guys, Edible Arrangements, and L’Occitane were fined $5,000 apiece; the Walking Co., which recently filed for bankruptcy protection, agreed to comply with the law but was not fined.
Healey’s office also sent warning letters to 17 businesses, informing them they must immediately remove questions about criminal records from their job applications: the Middle East Restaurant and Nightclub, Mainely Burgers, MexiCali Burrito Co., ArtScience: Culture Lab and Cafe, Meadhall, Love Culture, and Grafton Street Pub & Grill in Cambridge; and Brattle Book Shop, Kingston Grille and Bar, Salvatore’s, Sidebar, Stoddard’s Fine Food & Ale, the Chicken and Rice Guys, the Oceanaire Seafood Room, Tous Les Jours, Viga Italian Eatery & Caterer, and Frette in Boston.
“Jobs are the pathway to economic security and building a better life,” Healey said in a statement. “But unfortunately, many of our residents with criminal records face barriers to securing employment. These actions are an effort to give all job applicants a fair chance.”
The law, part of a series of reforms to the Criminal Offender Record Information system, or CORI, forbids most employers from requiring prospective hires to check a box indicating if they have a criminal record. (There are some exceptions, including jobs that involve working with young children or at financial institutions.) Employers are still allowed to conduct background checks later in the process.
Employers can inquire about felonies in interviews, but state law forbids them from asking about first-time convictions for a number of low-level misdemeanors, such as speeding or misdemeanors that are more than five years old.
The goal is to level the playing field by allowing candidates to get to the interview process who might otherwise never be considered. This helps individuals as well as society as a whole, advocates say, by helping people become more economically secure and breaking the cycle of incarceration.
“Study after study shows that most employers will not hire somebody with a criminal record. They won’t even talk to you,” said Pauline Quirion, director of the CORI & Re-entry Project at Greater Boston Legal Services. “At least with this, they get to try to make the case for why they should be employed — they’ve gone to school, they’re sober — and it can translate into employment.”
The attorney general’s investigation revealed only the “tip of the iceberg,” Quirion said, in part because it didn’t look at online applications. “It’s still a huge problem,” she said.
Some online applications won’t even let candidates fill out the rest of the form if they don’t answer “yes” or “no” to a question about having a record. Marlene Pollock, a community organizer at the Coalition for Social Justice in New Bedford, said residents at two recovery houses told her last week that they had been asked about their criminal history on job applications.
“This thing is a joke, it’s really a joke,” she said of the law.
Around the country, 32 states have similar “ban the box” laws for government employees, all enacted in the past 10 years, according to the National Employment Law Project; 11 states, including Massachusetts, also bar private employers from asking questions about criminal records on job applications.
Offenders can eventually seal their records to keep employers from accessing them. Currently, they have to wait 10 years after a felony conviction and five years after a misdemeanor, but this fall, that will drop to seven years and three years, respectively.
Several employers cited by Healey’s office said they didn’t know about the law and were happy to comply.
“If that’s the law, we will remove it. We had no idea,” said Jamie Walsh, general manager of Stoddard’s Fine Food & Ale. “I can guarantee you that we’re not even looking at criminal history, because hiring is so bad.”
Joyce Kosofsky, co-owner of the Brattle Book Shop, said her store inadvertently handed out old applications “at the bottom of the pile” that asked about traffic violations and DUIs during a flurry of hiring for two open positions recently. Kosofsky isn’t sure if she would hire someone with a criminal record — “depends on what the crime is,” she said — but since most of their employees are just out of college, it’s never been an issue. “We just assume that 22- to 23-year-olds don’t have a criminal background,” she said.
It’s not clear how much “ban the box” laws are helping former offenders find jobs. A 2017 study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston found that the employment rate of former offenders actually went down, compared to those without records, after the law went into effect.
Among the possible explanations: With criminal records no longer hanging over them, former offenders might be pursuing better, harder-to-get jobs, and turning down lower-paying opportunities they might have settled for in the past. The law may have also encouraged more of them to look for jobs, many of whom were probably weeded out later by background checks, bringing down the employment rate.
Other studies in Washington, D.C., and Durham County, N.C., however, have found that similar changes in records laws have boosted the employment of people with criminal backgrounds.Globe correspondent Margeaux Sippell contributed to this report. Katie Johnston can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.