Unfair Background Checks Shut Out Californians from Fast-Growing Health Care Jobs

Sensible Background Check Reforms Needed So All Qualified Job-Seekers Can Share in Promise of Quality Health Care Jobs

Oakland, CA—California has been a national leader in the effort to meet the unprecedented demand for health care jobs by hiring from diverse communities most in need of quality care, but a new report by the National Employment Law Project finds that far too many qualified job-seekers from these communities are still shut out of these jobs because of unfair criminal background check policies that also fail to advance patient safety or security.

The report, A Healthy Balance: Expanding Health Care Job Opportunities for Californians with a Criminal Record While Ensuring Patient Safety and Security, documents the employment barriers imposed by state laws regulating health care occupations and recommends reforms and model employer practices to help ensure that the one in four Californians with a criminal record are able to share in the promise of health care employment opportunities and give back to their communities.

“Fulfilling the promise of quality health care jobs for all Californians is one of the state’s top priorities, but we can’t get there if we don’t also tackle the criminal background check issues that especially affect communities of color—the people hardest hit by unemployment and over-criminalization,” said Madeline Neighly, staff attorney with the National Employment Law Project and the report’s lead author. “We hope that this report helps lay the groundwork for a more informed debate of this critical issue.”

The report documents several key findings that reinforce the need for fairer criminal background checks for workers seeking health care jobs. Half of the state’s 20 fastest-growing fields are in health care and related occupations, including home health aides, personal care aides, paramedics and other entry-level occupations. Yet, these and other high-growth occupations, such as certified nurse assistants, are not covered by the basic worker protections that govern most occupations requiring a criminal background check by the state. Applicants for these entry-level jobs face lifetime disqualification for more than 50 specified convictions, including misdemeanors.

The report found that California conducted over half a million criminal background checks for employment in health care jobs during the 18-month period from July 2011 to December 2013. Eight million Californians have a criminal record on file with the state—a by-product of the failed War on Drugs and decades of over-criminalization in low-income communities of color. People of color, and especially African American youth, are disproportionately represented in the numbers of Californians with a criminal record, which severely undermines their job search even though more than 75 percent of their arrests are for non-violent crimes.

The report also profiles some of the most promising efforts in the state to expand health care job opportunities for people with criminal records. The Emergency Medical Service Corps program in Alameda County, for example, provides rigorous training and paid internships for underserved youth in the community.

The push to reduce unwarranted barriers to employment for people with records comes at a time when both the federal government and the state of California have taken strong steps to reduce such barriers. The Obama Administration has adopted strong new guidelines to enforce the civil rights and consumer laws that regulate criminal background checks for employment. The President’s My Brother’s Keeper Task Force just released a 90-day progress report that calls for “reforms to promote successful reentry, including hiring practices, such as ‘Ban the Box . . . .” And in July, California’s new “ban the box” law will take effect, prohibiting public employers, including county hospitals and other health care facilities, from inquiring into an applicant’s conviction history on the initial job application.

The report builds on these positive developments and offers action recommendations for the California Legislature, state licensing boards and agencies, and California employers:

  • The California Legislature should remove unnecessary barriers to certification and licensing of health care occupations, including eliminating lifetime disqualifications and ensuring consideration of rehabilitation and other mitigating circumstances, as recommended in the recent National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers report. A bill currently pending (SB 1384) would apply such changes to certified nurse assistants. Another bill, AB 2060, would establish a fund for vocational training and stipends that could support model health care training programs, like Alameda County’s EMS Corps.
  • In addition, the Executive Branch can take immediate action to address key concerns identified in the report. The state licensing boards and agencies should provide clearer and more transparent information on their criminal record application and appeal processes and publish information on processing delays, while the Employment Development Department and Department of Fair Employment and Housing should take steps to enforce the civil rights laws that regulate criminal background checks.
  • Employers should adopt the best practices of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and train and monitor their hiring managers to ensure compliance with federal and state anti-discrimination and consumer protection laws that regulate criminal background checks. Employers should also work with community groups, including reentry programs and other job training providers, to ensure equitable access to jobs for all Californians.

Emma Stieglitz
(646) 200-5307

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