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Ever convicted? Most job applications can no longer ask that in NJ

Walter Fortson knew the odds of success would be stacked against him when he was put behind bars for drug possession in 2008, but thanks to the “ban the box” law that took effect in New Jersey on Sunday, he may get the chance he needs to reset and essentially erase the low point of his life.

Walter Fortson
Walter Fortson of Delran was incarcerated for two years in New Jersey and has since graduated with honors from Rutgers. (Dino Flammia, Townsquare Media NJ)

Fortson, a resident of Delran, was released from prison in 2010. However, landing a job has not been an easy task. In several instances, he didn’t get past the application process.

Now, Fortson believes he and other ex-convicts in New Jersey will get a fairer shot at gaining employment.

The new law states that Garden State employers with 15 or more workers cannot inquire about a job applicant’s criminal history until completion of an initial interview. That means no background checks and no applications that ask, “Have you ever been convicted of a crime?”

“Once you check that box, you’re often just immediately dismissed,” Fortson said. “You can’t talk about the positive things that you’ve done after your incarceration and after your release.”

Fortson feels that he wouldn’t have been overlooked so easily if the law was in place when he went out for jobs in the past. Since his release, he graduated with honors from Rutgers and gained a master’s degree at the University of Cambridge.

“The law will definitely open a lot of doors,” Fortson said. “It gives the opportunity for someone to present all of themselves to someone, to make a first impression, to give you a firm handshake.”

More than a dozen states have “banned the box,” in addition to numerous cities and counties with their own ordinances.

Toys “R” Us, headquartered in Wayne, said in accordance with the new law, the company will no longer include the criminal conviction question on its employment applications.

“A standard background check continues to be processed for all job candidates after an offer of conditional employment has been accepted,” a company spokesperson said in an emailed statement.

Job application, Ban the Box
Certain employers can no longer ask about a job applicant’s criminal history until an initial interview has been completed. (Dino Flammia, Townsquare Media NJ)

Employers have had months to prepare for the change, as the legislation was signed into law in August.

Alexa Miller, an associate with labor law firm Fisher & Phillips in Murray Hill, said “ban the box” is not meant to give a pass to everyone who broke the law, but it does provide a new opportunity for those convicted of lesser offenses.

“There’s a big difference between someone who made a dumb mistake 20 years ago versus a real serious crime like a Megan’s Law violation,” she said.

The law makes exceptions for several positions, including those in law enforcement, corrections, judiciary and other positions where a background check is mandatory.

Employers who violate the law face a penalty of $1,000 for the first offense, $5,000 for the second and $10,000 for each subsequent offense.

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