Private businesses have a right to ask whether a potential employee has a felony record. (Dale G. Young / The Detroit News)
The Legislature should always avoid meddling into the operation of private businesses. So lawmakers ought to reject a House bill that would prohibit employers from asking job seekers — on initial applications — if they have a felony record.
The bill, introduced by Rep. Fred Durhal, Jr., D-Detroit, would still allow employment applications to carry the question for jobs that specifically prohibit felons — positions such as police officers and prison guards. It even says the question can be asked during job interviews. So if it's going to be asked anyway, why delay the inevitable?
Durhal has started a campaign to support his bill, calling it "Ban the Box," a reference to the job application box that must be checked if the job seeker is a past felon. He says it's a civil rights issue to him because convicted felons are discriminated against, and he wants qualified individuals to be able to obtain jobs.
But businesses have every right to know what kind of person they are hiring.
Dave Jessup, director of government relations for the Small Business Association of Michigan, succinctly summarizes the situation: "I think a cookie cutter approach to the issue is unwise. It (the bill) doesn't make practical sense and I hate to see us go down the slippery slope where government inserts itself in the hiring process."
Jessup says his association supports the goal of having qualified people re-enter the job market.
But he says a better option is to engage small businesses, find out what skills they're looking for and match them with people who have those skills — whether they have served time in prison or not.
"Time is money for small business owners," Jessup says. "Eliminating that piece of information from applications will cost small businesses."
Currently, three communities in Michigan have ordinances banning the felony question on job applications — Detroit, Kalamazoo and Muskegon Township. The state doesn't need to get involved.
The Legislature should stay out of the private sector and let employers handle this matter as they see fit.