On August 11, 2014, New Jersey Governor Chris Cristie signed into law “The Opportunity to Compete Act”, commonly referred to as New Jersey’s “ban-the-box” law, which prohibits employers from asking about the applicant’s criminal history prior to the completion of the first interview. New Jersey is the 6th state, in a growing trend, to pass some form of the “ban-the box” law which is intended to remove obstacles to employment for people with criminal records. New Jersey will join Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, Minnesota, and Rhode Island, all of which have similar laws covering private employers.
New Jersey’s law will become effective on March 1, 2015 and covers both public and private employers operating in New Jersey who employ 15 or more employees. After the first interview, New Jersey employers are free to inquire into the applicant’s criminal background and may ultimately refuse to hire the applicant based on his or her background, so long as the refusal is not based on expunged of pardoned records. In addition to the restrictions on inquiries pre-first interview, the law prohibits employers from publishing job postings or ads stating that it automatically excludes applicants with arrest or conviction records.
The Usual Exemptions
Not unlike other laws, New Jersey’s law provides for several exceptions. The law does not apply to those positions that require criminal background checks by law or regulation, including positions in law enforcement, corrections, the judiciary, homeland security, and emergency management. Also excluded are positions where certain convictions would, by law, either automatically disqualify the applicant or restrict the employer from engaging in certain business activities based on its employees’ criminal records.
Penalties and Preemption of Local Ordinances
A positive for employers is that the law will not spur more employment litigation, because it does not create a private right of action for alleged violations. However, employers who violate the law will be met with increasing fines –$1,000 for the first violation, $5,000 for second violations, and $10,000 for each subsequent violation.
Finally, the law will preempt existing or future local laws – including Newark’s local “ban-the-box” law – that regulate private employers’ use of criminal background checks.
Next Steps for New Jersey Employers
Employers operating in New Jersey should begin working with their Labor & Employment counsel now to review their employment applications, job postings, policies, and employee handbooks to ensure compliance prior to March 1, 2015. Employers should also ensure that training is provided to those individuals involved in hiring and interviewing of potential job applicants. Additionally, employers who operate in jurisdictions within and outside of New Jersey should continue to closely monitor the “ban-the-box” legislations in other jurisdictions as these laws remain a growing trend.
Finally, employers should keep in mind that under guidance issued by the EEOC and a number of state laws, an employer may be required to demonstrate the relevance of a given conviction as a basis for excluding an applicant from employment.