By Andrew Blanton
AUSTIN – In March, the Austin City Council passed the Fair Chance Hiring Ordinance that aims to help citizens with a criminal background find employment. While many consider the ordinance a step in the right direction, convicted felons, regardless of the nature of the crime, are prevented by law from obtaining necessary licenses for employment in many industries across the State.
Supporters of Austin’s Fair Chance Hiring Ordinance commonly refer to the law as “ban the box.” The ordinance removes the box applicants have to check regarding whether or not they are a convicted felon, something supporters say usually prevents them from obtaining an interview.
A supporter of the Fair Chance Hiring Act watching testimony at Austin City Hall. Photo by Andrew Blanton
Benjamin Burich, a north Austin resident, has struggled with employment and housing following his fourth DWI conviction. Burich said he began using drugs and alcohol in high school.
“I very quickly became and addict,” Burich said.
Burich, who grew up in a single-parent home, said that he became a full-blown addict by the time he was 18. By the time he was 27, he had already received three DWI convictions.
“For me rock bottom didn’t exist,” Burich said. “I only dug deeper and deeper.”
When Burich had his fourth DWI, he wrecked his vehicle and broke his neck and back. Luckily, no one else was injured in the accident.
The largest problem with the criminal justice system is that there are few programs that deal directly with addiction, Burich said. The halfway house system may sound promising, but the reality is that some are solely in the programs to complete their sentence.
“You also have people who are not really wanting to recover,” Burich said. “They’re doing what it takes to appease probation, parole, but at the same time a lot of those places have a lot of drugs running in and out of them.”
Halfway houses are funded by the state and federal government, and most felons cannot afford sober living facilities.
“Those places are like $1000 a month, so you get a guy coming out of prison who doesn’t have a job,” Burich said, “he can’t go live in the nice places where they really do watch you, who really do take care of you in those situations.”
Burich was turned down for dozens of jobs in the service industry because of his lengthy criminal history. He was once hired for a building maintenance job after an interview process, but was fired after only nine days because of his background check. In the interview, Burich discussed his conviction record with the company, and that he had been sober for over two years. They agreed to give him a chance.
When he was fired Burich was told “you have to have five years separation between this and your last offense.” His last conviction was three years prior at that point.
He has since turned his life around, becoming a youth leader at his church. He was able to get a loan for a vehicle from his father-in-law, and started his own handyman business.
“I’ve been really blessed,” Burich said.
Burich’s story has made an impact on many of the youth at his church, but state regulations have prevented him from reaching out to troubled youth in juvenile facilities, something he is very passionate about.
Data from the Texas Department of Public Safety
Finding a place to live was incredibly hard for Burich and his fiancée. They were at the end of their rope after applying for countless apartments.
“We had all but given up,” Burich said. “She looked on Craig’s List one last time, and fortunately there was an individual home owner who decided he was going to give us a chance.”
A slideshow showing supporters of the Fair Chance Hiring Ordinance at Austin City Hall.
Although Burich earns a living as a handyman, he is restricted by state regulations in many cases from obtaining the proper licenses to complete larger construction projects.
Many convicted felons that have found a career in construction work prior to their convictions are unable to return to the field following their release.
One of the many examples of criminal history that effects construction workers can be found in Occupations Code 1201.551, also known as the Texas Manufactured Housing Standards Act.
The act requires anyone working on the foundation underneath a mobile home, altering a mobile home in any way before being received by a purchaser, providing installation of a mobile home on a property, connecting utilities to a mobile home, and even the sale of a mobile home to obtain a state required license.
This license can be denied to anyone who “engaged in a false, misleading, or deceptive act or practice” relating to the Business and Commerce Code, or who “acquired a criminal record during the five-year period preceding the application date that, in the opinion of the director, makes the applicant unfit for licensing.”
The act aims to protect “state residents who want to purchase manufactured housing by regulating the construction and installation.”
But this is not the only area of construction that requires a state issued license. Convicted felons are even prevented from completing architectural design in some cases.
Glenn Garry, Communications Manager for the Texas Board of Architectural Examiners, said that issuing licenses to convicted felons in the industry does not come up often, and that the cost of extensive schooling and state issued examinations may be a factor. Applicants with criminal history must go through a review board before a license can be issued.
The Texas Board of Architectural Examiners denies felons convicted of sexual offenses, offenses directly related to the industry, and any felony conviction within the last five years.
“It would be a tough road if you were getting out of prison to, kind of, start down that path,” Garry said.
The TBAE is a government agency that oversees public health, safety and welfare. The agency is responsible for issuing licenses for operating in the industry similar to doctors, lawyers and teachers, Garry said.
The TBAE was created to regulate safety for the public after nearly 300 people were killed in the explosion of a school in New London, Texas in 1937. The explosion was caused by a natural gas leak.
First, a criminal background check is run on the applicant, and if any eyebrows are raised due to the criminal history, it would go to the investigations department to look at the details of the case. If there are any potential risks, the applicant is allowed to address the board in a public meeting, Garry said.
The board includes nine members that are appointed by the governor.
Garry said that criminal convictions are often what causes someone in the industry to lose their license, not necessarily something put in place to prevent applicants from getting a second chance in society.
One of the main crimes related to the architectural industry is bribery or fraud, Garry said. Architects could potentially bribe public officials to obtain tax-payer-funded contracts for hospitals, schools, stadiums, and other projects.
When a convicted felon is released from incarderation, completes drug and alcohol addiction programs, and finds an entry level job, they often become discouraged by state and federal regulations that prevent them from finding a career.
It is difficult to understand why a controlled substance conviction in someone’s past prevents them from entering the financial industry.
Felons cannot obtain a license to become a Certified Public Accountant because the occupations code states that an applicant attempting to take the CPA examination or to receive a certificate must be of good moral character as demonstrated by a lack of history of dishonest or felonious acts.