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Tampa won't make city vendors 'ban the box' on job applications

Published Feb. 20, 2015

TAMPA — After being warned that it risked losing a lawsuit, the City Council declined Thursday to expand its "ban the box" job application policy to include companies doing business with City Hall. But the council still hopes to nudge private employers toward eliminating questions on initial job applications about applicants' criminal history.

The council voted 4-2 to draft an ordinance requiring that bidders for city contracts be asked if their applications include such questions. The companies' answers, officials said, will not factor into who wins a city contract. Instead, the question is meant to provoke consideration of eliminating the question.

"I see this, and I'm bidding for a city contract, I'm going to say I have to start looking at this," council member Yvonne Yolie Capin said. "That is the positive side of it."

At the urging of HOPE, the nonprofit Hillsborough Organization for Progress and Equality, the council voted two years ago to remove the box from its own job applications. (Since then, City Hall has made job offers that hinge on applicants passing a background check that includes criminal history.)

Over the last 10 months, HOPE has lobbied the council to take another step: requiring companies that sell goods and services to the city to ban the box from their own job applications to get city contracts.

The problem, advocates said, is that the question automatically disqualifies ex-offenders working to turn their lives around. It would be better, they say, to give those applicants a chance to make a case for themselves to prospective employers.

"I made a mistake," Charles Jefferson Jr. told the council. Now a community organizer working with fast-food workers, Jefferson said he had served time in prison for the sale and delivery of crack cocaine.

"I paid my debt to society, and I'm not 19 anymore," he said. "I'm 31 years old. I have a wife. I have three children. I have made my attempt to rehabilitate myself into society, but I have found it to be a very heavy task — a very daunting task — because every time I go to get a job, obviously I have to submit to this mistake that I made in my past."

HOPE's Bill Tone said more than 20 communities nationwide had passed such ordinances with no lawsuits from any companies that had to comply. An ordinance extending ban the box to city vendors wouldn't solve all discrimination, he said, but would be a step in the right direction.

"When we perpetuate systemic discrimination, which is what the box does, we are ensuring continued discrimination against a class of men and women who have paid the price for their actions," Tone said. "The box is a systemic problem that you can choose to solve."

HOPE, which had the support of the local chapter of the NAACP, contended that a lawyer from the nonprofit National Employment Law Project had reviewed the city's charter and concluded that the council has the legal authority to require vendors to ban the box.

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But City Attorney Julia Mandell told the council she hadn't found any other Florida city that had banned the box for vendors, nor had she found any case law on the issue. She worried that if the city granted HOPE's request, a bidder could successfully challenge the city's new criterion as arbitrary and capricious.

"That's where we get into a legal gray area, where I cannot say what a court would do with that, and I have some concerns," Mandell said. Make vendors ban the box, she said, and the city runs a "very significant risk" of seeing more bid protests and other problems in the bid process.

"We run the risk of having a scheme that could be overturned," Mandell said, "and it could be very costly."

Contact Richard Danielson at rdanielson@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3403. Follow @Danielson_Times.

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