St. Pete proposes “Ban the Box” policy and $12.50 minimum wage

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St. Pete Mayor Rick Kriseman is on a roll trying to improve economic conditions for some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. Today he announced another effort, but this time one that could benefit the entire city.

Beginning Jan. 1, St. Pete will join nearly 70 other cities including Tampa in “banning the box.” That is the box on applications for city jobs that asks  prospective employees whether they have a criminal record.

“This is good for our economy,” Kriseman said. “This is good for public safety.”

The nationwide campaign to “ban the box” is gaining traction. Retail giants Wal-Mart and Target both jumped on board, but there are still plenty of employers who oppose the move. They argue that hiring someone with a criminal record, especially a felon, could lead to theft in the workplace and potentially unsafe working conditions.

But the “ban the box” movement doesn’t eliminate background checks or even asking the question. It just puts it off until later in the application process.

“It creates opportunity by allowing these people the opportunity to present themselves and talk about what their histories are,” said Mike Jalazo, executive director of the Pinellas Ex-Offender Re-entry Coalition. “ [It] let’s you put your job qualifications first when you’re being selected for interviews and not just eliminated because of a box.”

The change in city policy will affect only city jobs. It does not mandate private sector jobs to follow suit. The policy also will not exclude background checks for city jobs and they will still be mandated for any public safety positions. Those checks will just be looked at later in the process.

LaShanna Tyson champions the “ban the box” movement because she is a felon who has completed her sentence. Tyson was released from prison after 13 years in April 2011. She was sentenced to 15 years for her involvement in a shooting that resulted in the death of an Orlando convenient store owner. After her release, she spent six-months in a work release program in St. Pete before returning to her hometown in Orlando.

“I couldn’t go back to college because that box was there. I couldn’t get a job because that box was there and I can tell you, as a human being, that thing hurts. It hurts when you want to do the right thing and you can’t,” Tyson said.

During her incarceration Tyson said she saw women come and go from the prison. Some of the women would get released only to come back. They told her it was harder on the outside than it was on the inside, but she never really understood —  until she experienced it for herself.

Tyson finally decided to get her real estate license. As a Realtor, she’d be her own boss and not subject to scrutiny over her past. She sold her first home three months after earning her license. She took the commission and set out to finally live on her own again. But again, she was faced with the box.

“I was told that I can’t rent an apartment for 99 years,” Tyson said.

Tyson now works as a community organizer for the group Faith in Florida. And she’s still selling real estate.

Tyson is one of the lucky ones though. A 2010 study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research found “80 to 90 of employers surveyed said that they would ‘definitely’ or ‘probably’ hire ‘former welfare recipients, workers with little recent work experience or lengthy unemployment, and other stigmatizing characteristics.’ By contrast, only about 40 percent of employers would ‘definitely’ or ‘probably’ hire applicants with criminal records, especially for jobs that involved dealing with customers or handling money.”

That’s one of the reasons Kriseman says it’s important to remove employment barriers for ex-offenders.

“When individuals with criminal histories are engaged in their community, when they are employed, they are less likely to reoffend and our community is safer,” Kriseman said.

The CEPR study also found that reductions in employment associated with felons costs the U.S. economy between $57 billion and $65 billion in lost output.

In addition to banning the box, Kriseman also announced the city is proposing raising minimum wage to $12.50. President Obama is pushing for a $10.10 wage floor and several unions want $15 an hour.

“This is gas money. It’s grocery money. It’s a few extra dollars to help make life a little easier for the people in our city of St. Petersburg family. It’s money that is likely to stay right here in our local economy,” Kriseman said.

The minimum wage increase would cost the city about $125,000. The proposal will also include pay increases for Florida Public Service Union employees in the city. That will cost about $715,000. Both expenses fit within the city’s fiscal year 2015 budget.

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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.