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Allegations of discrimination highlight importance of ‘ban the box’

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

A former St. Pete employee accused the city’s HR department of discrimination within its staffing office. Amber Pawlowski witnessed what she saw as uneven application of hiring practices based on arbitrary and discriminatory reasons.

While Pawlowski’s diligent note-taking and observation may have indeed uncovered some unfair practices, the investigation that ensued is evidence that a newly implemented city policy is working.

Under Mayor Rick Kriseman’s bidding, the city officially “banned the box” on employment applications. That means people with criminal backgrounds do not have to disclose their records on applications and instead are subject to background checks upon receiving a job offer.

The only prospective employees that would have job offers rescinded would be those with extreme offenses or ones relevant to the department they’re to work. For example, someone with theft on their criminal record may not be permitted to work in a finance department. Likewise, someone with past convictions for child abuse or neglect may be disqualified from working in the city’s Parks and Recreation department.

At issue in Pawlowski’s complaint were observations that classifying applications as “falsified” was not uniformly implemented. In a nine-page document, Pawlowski wrote that one employee, an African-American male, had his application removed from consideration and was banned from applying for a city job for five years because he failed to disclose all of his past legal transgressions.

According to Pawlowski’s complaint, the individual explained that he left his file containing arrest information at home and had a hard time remembering everything. Karen Valdez, the then personnel technician in the office, pulled the individual’s arrest record from public records and “falsified” the application because there were omissions.

Pawlowski then claims that another man, who was not black, was in a similar situation and was allowed to leave the office to retrieve further criminal background information without question.

Pawlowski took the issue to the city’s HR department. She was subsequently offered a lateral move to a position in the water resources department and then later resigned. Pawlowski’s work history with St. Pete was described by supervisors positively.

According to labor relations and compensation manager Chris Guella, the matter was thoroughly investigated and the allegations found to be false. Guella explained the man who was “falsified” was given adequate opportunity to provide accurate information and failed to do so while the other individual followed through with recommendations given by the department.

“Although your concerns did not meet the legal standard of prohibited conduct, Human Resources management counseled Ms. Valdez regarding the perception of her interpersonal communications. Additionally, the Employment Division revised its practices to ensure compliance with all applicable policies and procedures,” a response letter to Pawlowski from the city read.

If Valdez was discriminating based on race or other factors pertaining to people with criminal backgrounds, that issue is now moot, thanks to the city’s “ban the box” policy.

When he announced it last October, Kriseman explained the idea was to ensure further diversity within the city and offer better employment outcomes for residents who have struggled to find meaningful employment after coming from checkered pasts.

While “ban the box” policies may not be directly targeted at reducing opportunity for racially biased employment decisions, it goes a long way in doing just that.

Statistically speaking, a black male is far more likely to have a past criminal history than a white male.

It’s also a poverty issue. Most people with records come from poor backgrounds.

In this case, what could have been a dangerous testament to continued discrimination within the City of St. Pete is instead a glaring example of why cities across the nation are signing on to the “ban the box” mentality.

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Janelle Irwin has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in the Tampa Bay area since 2003. She also hosts a weekly political talk show on WMNF Community radio. Janelle formerly served as the sole staff reporter for WMNF News and previously covered news for Patch.com and various local neighborhood newsletters. Her work has been featured in the New York Daily News, Free Speech Radio News and Florida Public Radio and she's been interviewed by radio stations across the nation for her coverage of the 2012 Republican National Convention. Janelle is a diehard news junkie who isn't afraid to take on big names in local politics including Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, the dirty business of trash and recycling in St. Pete and the ongoing Pier debacle. Her work as a reporter and radio host has earned her two WMNF awards including News Volunteer of the Year and Public Affairs Volunteer of the Year. Janelle is also the devoted mother to three brilliant and beautiful daughters who are a constant source of inspiration and occasional blogging fodder. To contact, email janelle@floridapolitics.com.

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