The Washington Legislature concluded its 2018 Session last week, and joined Oregon and California in “banning the box” when it comes to employment applications. Specifically, Washington’s new law, dubbed the “Fair Chance Act” (the “Act”), prohibits employers from looking into any criminal history of potential employees at the point an applicant first applies for a job. The Act is less stringent than California’s legislation and tends to mirror Oregon’s legislation.
The Act passed through both houses of the Washington legislature on March 3, and Governor Jay Inslee wasted no time signing it into law. At this point, the only thing that would prevent the Act from taking effect is a provision which states that funding must be appropriated “by June 30, 2018, through the omnibus appropriations act.” The likelihood of that not happening is very slim. For this reason, we are advising all of our cannabis businesses clients to treat HB 2198 as the law of the land in Washington, starting now.
It is important to note that the Act does not bar employers from inquiring as to criminal history at all points in the application process. Once an employer has determined the applicant is “otherwise qualified” for the position, the inquiry may begin. “Otherwise qualified” means that the applicant meets the basic criteria for the position as set out in the job advertisement or job description. In most cases, whether the applicant is otherwise qualified can be determined from the application materials. Thus, employers in Washington may be able to ask about criminal history during interviews, but not before.
In addition to the initial screening rules, it is important to note that the Act also prohibits employers from advertising open positions in any way that excludes people with a criminal record from applying. Job advertisements that state “felons need not apply” or “no criminal background”, or that convey similar messages are prohibited. Finally, employers that are required by either federal or state law to perform criminal background checks are exempt from the law. This exemption does not apply to Washington cannabis businesses.
Ban the box legislation is trending nationwide: today, 31 states and more than 150 cities and counties have adopted a ban-the-box law regulating either public or private employers. These laws are especially important for cannabis businesses, which may, anecdotally, have a higher incidence of applicants with colorful backgrounds. Some states seem to care more about this than others: Oregon, for example, runs a background check while individually permitting cannabis employees; Washington does not.
The big take-aways here are: 1) do not ask about past criminal history on applications; and 2) consider seriously whether asking this question is necessary at all during interviews. By turning over too many rocks, you may find that an applicant has a past conviction for something like marijuana possession or distribution, and you may unintentionally violate one of Washington’s newest laws. Above all, and when in doubt, have an experienced employment attorney review your hiring techniques.