Recovery after Recovery: New Employment Rules


There’s a dreaded check box on most employment applications, at least for many in post-treatment. It’s a yes/no box next to the question, “Have you ever been convicted of a crime?”

For many addicts in recovery, that little box is the difference between moving forward with their lives and sliding back into active addiction. Recent rules put out by the U.S. Department of Labor may turn this situation around, at least in many cases where recovering addicts now face immediate rejection.

Prejudice or Good Sense?

From an employer’s perspective, denying a job to someone with a criminal history makes sense. Why risk hiring someone who has already show a character flaw? But that’s the rub. Addiction is a disease, a medical condition. Lumping ex-addicts in with violent offenders or sexual predators isn’t fair and denies recovering addicts the one thing they need to repair their lives – a job.

It’s a sad fact that addiction often leads to arrest and even prison. Twelve-step groups say it like this: “Without recovery, addiction leads only to jail, hospitalization or death.” In today’s world, those are permanent records. Even when the courts expunge the data, since it was public at one time, private search firms recorded it and they are not obligated to remove the information. An arrest or crime can be discovered even decades after the fact – long after it makes sense to arbitrarily paint someone with the label “criminal.”

A criminal history check has become an easy way to filter job applications - a last, “accepted prejudice” in our society. You can’t deny someone a job based on color or creed. You can’t deny them a job simply because they have a disability. And the Department of Labor saw something similar emerging with criminal history checks – a kind of discrimination and bias that wasn’t justified.

Damage to a 'Disparate Class'

Last year’s Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis put it this way, “When someone serves time in our penal system, they shouldn’t face a lifetime sentence of unemployment when released...”

Because black males are at a significantly higher risk of having an arrest or imprisonment on their records, the net result of a blanket “no criminal history” policy was to deny this category of citizen employment. One in three black men will go to prison some time in their lives.

And while people of color make up a third of U.S. citizens, 60 percent of those incarcerated come from this group (statistics here). This means that denying employment based solely on having an arrest or conviction will affect minorities much more as a simple matter of mathematics.

On the other hand, businesses shouldn’t be forced to hire an ex-drug addict to work at their pharmacy, should they?

A Common-Sense Solution

Here’s the middle ground arrived at: It gives employers some power but helps reduce the chances of discriminating against a whole class of people. The Department of Labor simply asked that employers get specific – no more wholesale dumping of applications with any crime mentioned. The crime has to be related to the job under consideration. That means someone who was addicted to drugs and now clean could very well work in sales, or any number of jobs, but not in the pharmacy.

Employers are expected to take into consideration how long ago the incident happened, how serious it was and what has transpired since (other jobs held, skills acquired, demonstration of trustworthiness). Failing to do so could land the employer in an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission action against them.

For those in recovery, all of this is good news. They must be given a chance to tell their story and may present evidence of program completion or even drug testing results. Employers can no longer ban them when they check the box - at least not without a sensible reason.

The detailed directive can be found here.


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