Seattle Ban the Box Law Expanded to Include Private Employers

Author: David B. Weisenfeld, XpertHR Legal Editor

November 5, 2013

Effective November 1, City of Seattle employers are prohibited from asking criminal history questions on initial job applications under a new Ban the Box ordinance. Since 2009, the city has had a policy of not asking such questions on employment applications for city jobs. But the new ordinance now goes a step further by banning private employers from this practice as well. Accordingly, Seattle employers should revise their job applications to eliminate any criminal history inquiries.

Ban the Box refers to the box on employment applications that prospective employees are often asked to check off if they have ever been convicted of a crime. Nearly 60 cities have enacted these laws. But Seattle is the third major US city to extend the ban to private employers. Buffalo, NY will become the fourth when a similar measure takes effect there on January 1, 2014.

The Seattle Ban the Box ordinance prohibits employers from automatically excluding applicants with an arrest or conviction record from consideration. It requires an employer to have a "legitimate business reason" before it may exclude a qualified applicant based solely on his or her criminal record. Also, employers must give applicants or employees a reasonable opportunity to explain or correct the information.

Employers that violate the ordinance will be subject to the following sanctions:

  • An infraction notice for a first violation;
  • A penalty of up to $750 for a second violation; and
  • A penalty of up to $1,000 for each additional violation.

The ordinance provides limited exemptions for law enforcement jobs, as well as positions with unsupervised access to children, individuals with developmental disabilities or vulnerable adults.

State Ban the Box Laws Taking Hold

Massachusetts and Hawaii already have Ban the Box laws that apply to both private and public employers. As of January 1, 2014, the number of states with such laws will double as similar measures are scheduled to take effect in Rhode Island and Minnesota. This trend in state laws may stem from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's (EEOC) position that employers should not ask about an individual's criminal history on job applications.

Six other states have Ban the Box laws that apply only to public employers, including:

  • California;
  • Colorado;
  • Connecticut;
  • Illinois;
  • Maryland; and
  • New Mexico.

These laws do not prevent employers from performing criminal background checks later in the hiring process.