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Originally published January 24, 2013 at 4:02 PM | Page modified January 24, 2013 at 4:02 PM

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Editorial: Bruce Harrell’s background-check proposal unduly burdens business

The bill by Seattle City Councilman Bruce Harrell to restrict employers from running criminal-background checks on job applicants is unwarranted.

Seattle Times Editorial

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BRUCE Harrell of the Seattle City Council — and now a candidate for mayor — is working on a bill to help ex-prisoners find jobs. His motive is good: Ex-inmates need to find work. However, his initial proposal would unduly restrict employers’ ability to check applicants for criminal convictions or pending charges.

State law already forbids employers from asking most applicants about criminal convictions unrelated to the job. As proposed, Harrell’s legislation would forbid an employer from any check of criminal background until after a job was offered. The employer would be forbidden to cancel the offer unless the applicant’s background had a direct bearing on fitness for the job.

In most cases, a criminal background is something an employer would reasonably want to know about. It could be a risk to the business, its employees and customers. The risk would depend on the crime, when it was committed and what redeeming things the person had done since.

It would depend on the job: Was it in a machine shop or a dentist’s office? What sort of people would be at risk there?

Reducing these factors to a single “yes” or “no” is a matter of judgment about which employer and applicant may disagree.

The initial legislation would allow a lawsuit in which a court would second-guess the employer’s decision, creating a whole new way for disappointed job seekers to drag employers into court.

This is not the same as anti-discrimination law. There, the law protects people defined by attributes over which they have no choice and which should not matter. This proposal is about acts over which the applicant did have a choice and which may matter.

Harrell has been asked by the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce to change this proposal to remove these problems. In the interests of the city, he should do so.

His initial proposal would increase risks for businesses operating in Seattle and nowhere else. It would add to the burden of other city-imposed obligations, such as the new sick-leave law.

Some businesses here are high-profit enough to absorb such costs without pause, and good for them. Others are not. The city’s commercial policy should not be written with only one type of business in mind.

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