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Denton's fair-chance hiring ordinance fails. Second-chance program set to takes its place

Rachel Osier Lindley
The Texas Newsroom file photo

Late Tuesday night, Denton City Council voted against moving forward with a fair-chance hiring ordinance.

District 2 council member Vicki Byrd was the deciding vote, joining the majority that included Mayor Gerard Hudspeth and council members Jill Jester from Place 6 and Joe Holland from District 4 to allow the Denton Chamber of Commerce to continue developing a second-chance hiring program.

Byrd acknowledged both sides of this issue and that a segment of the population is hit harder when it comes to criminal records due to racism.

“But I’m thinking that if we’re going to call ourselves inclusive, that includes businesses as well,” Byrd said. “...We’re going to give them an opportunity to get on board [with] inclusivity.”

The chamber’s proposed program will incentivize local businesses to give those with criminal records a "second chance" during the hiring process.

Mayor Pro Tem Paul Meltzer, the council member for District 3, did not attend the meeting.

“I didn’t run for a board position on the chamber of commerce and thought my colleagues didn’t either,” said Brandon Chase McGee, the Place 5 council member who introduced the fair-chance hiring ordinance. “I ran to represent the people. Now, the business community is very much part of the community, but I don’t side with a business entity over a person. I ran to represent the people, and we know that it is good for people.”

Known as the “Fair Chance Hiring/Second Chance Hiring Program,” the chamber’s program will host quarterly workshops to engage Denton businesses with two main focus areas, according to the June 4 presentation:

  • Recoup wages through tax credits such as the work opportunity tax credit, a federal credit available to employers who hire individuals from certain target groups who have consistently faced significant barriers to employment.
  • Fidelity bonding, which is like an insurance policy for businesses who hire a job applicant who’s had a harder time securing long-term employment. Offered by the Texas Workforce Commission, the bond, up to $5,000, protects the company “if the worker does something dishonest, like theft.”
    • Eligibility for the bond includes those who have been arrested, on probation or have a police record.
    • The bond, however, does not apply to people who are self-employed. It only applies to specific employers and does not offer coverage for poor work skills, work injuries or accidents.

According to the June 4 presentation, the first workshop will take place sometime in July, followed by another workshop in September. They’re seeking to identify four business partners and plan to collect data and provide updates to the city manager’s office for a council report.

The chamber will also put businesses that participate on a list of “second-chance hiring friendly” on the chamber’s website for job applicants with criminal histories.

Information about the program will be available on the chamber’s website.

For more than two years, McGee has been championing passage of a “ban-the-box” initiative, also known as the fair-chance hiring ordinance. It would have recommended local private employers remove the criminal background question from applications and wait until later in the hiring process to ask about criminal history.

Fair-chance hiring would have been a provision of the city’s nondiscrimination ordinance.

The council was poised to pass it in January when McGee made a motion to table the vote for 120 days to allow the chamber to develop a second-chance hiring program.

A month has passed since the 120-day deadline, and several people appeared Tuesday night to speak in favor of the ordinance. They pointed out several benefits, including that it would have added another layer of protection for job seekers and make it more difficult for employers to toss aside their job applications when they see a check mark on the box indicating a criminal record.

They also discussed how difficult it is for those with felonies, whether nonviolent or violent, to find a job and how it impacted families, leading to what feels like a lifelong sentence, even though they had already completed time in jail.

“He was the best cook that I ever knew and why I’m a cook today,” one speaker told council members Tuesday night. “But no matter what, [my father] couldn’t find a job. People would see that check mark and say, ‘Ah, I don’t want to hire a criminal.’”

The Texas Center for Justice and Equity reported that more than 9 million Texans have a criminal record. There are just shy of 29 million people in Texas, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Kristine Bray from Abundance Denton, a local grassroots organization, told the council that they completed outreach and collected 50 signatures from people with felonies who supported passing a fair chance hiring ordinance.

Bray also shared a story from one of the signees who claimed they were 18 years old when they received a felony conviction for a cannabis vape pen and, despite serving time and bettering their life, they still faced the stigma of a felony record and the harsh reality of limited options.

They were pleading for systemic change to an issue that was “trapping individuals in a web of limited opportunities and risks alienating a segment of the population.”

Bray claimed passing the fair-chance hiring ordinance would remove “barriers and pave the way for a brighter future.”

Hudspeth stressed that the fair-chance hiring ordinance would be ineffective since it simply mirrors federal and state laws.

“This doesn’t move the needle at all and doesn’t activate the city of Denton,” Hudspeth said. He pointed out that the chamber’s program at least offers job applicants an opportunity.

McGee and Brian Beck, the District 2 council member, couldn’t understand why they couldn’t do both the ordinance and the chamber’s program.

“If we’re going to mandate something, we won’t need additional services since that option already exists,” chamber President Erin Carter told council members. “...We are removing that right from businesses. I don’t think [the ordinance] is in the best interest of the business community.”

McGee pointed out that more than 125 cities and half the states support the ban-the-box initiative, and while it isn’t illegal to discriminate against criminal background, it is often tied to a protected class such as disability and race.

“This is something affecting Black and brown men specifically,” McGee said. “It’s not affecting white men.”

Hudspeth, who is Denton’s first Black mayor, claimed that the ordinance also wouldn’t keep an employer from including the box for a criminal background on an application.

“It is not a violation of the ordinance or state law and not illegal to deny someone a job due to their criminal history,” Hudspeth said. “It’s only discriminatory because of their race. It doesn’t change the application or the process and doesn’t help you find a new list of employers [willing to do so]. It does materially nothing different.”

But one speaker pointed out what it could have done if they had passed the fair-chance hiring ordinance on Tuesday night. The speaker was a new resident who had moved with their spouse to Denton due to inclusive ordinances like the fair-chance hiring one proposed Tuesday night.

“I think this ordinance really represents what I think is the spirit that Denton represents,” the speaker told council members. “It’s really important that we give people chances. If we do that, it shows how we can really come together and shows our best side.

"If you all let this pass, I think that it will really show how Denton represents a place where people can be the best that they can be.”