Photo courtesy of Moosewood's Facebook page.

Ithaca, N.Y. – Moosewood is no longer asking job applicants about their criminal history.

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About a month ago, the nationally-known restaurant in downtown Ithaca joined the “ban-the-box” movement and removed questions about criminal history from its job application, according to Laura Branca, board president of Moosewood, Inc.

For years, Branca said, Moosewood used an application provided by an old payroll service. “No one really looked at it,” she said in a phone interview on Labor Day.

One day, Branca – who has been following nationwide “ban-the-box” movements – decided to look more in-depth into what the application to the restaurant actually asked. She noticed that, on the front of the application, a question asked about prior criminal convictions.

“The fact is that a felony conviction or an arrest record doesn’t really tell you much about whether someone is going to be a good worker, has skills, talents, or is going to show up on time and be a reliable employee,” she said. “It’s just a barrier. It’s not really relevant for our business.”

So, Branca said, she simply got rid of the question. “It was easy,” she said.

Moosewood’s change comes during a time in which “ban-the-box” movements are impacting hiring processes across the United States.

“Ban the box” measures have been implemented in over 100 cities and counties nationwide, so employers “consider a job candidate’s qualifications first, without the stigma of a conviction record,” according to the National Employment Law Project.

The Tompkins County Legislature, as the Ithaca Voice previously reported, looks likely to implement the policy for people that apply for public jobs within the county.

Photo courtesy of Moosewood’s Facebook page.
Photo courtesy of Moosewood’s Facebook page.

“I recognize that there are people who are felons – they’ve made a mistake and they’ve paid their dues, but they’re probably getting eliminated for consideration from really good jobs they’d be qualified for,” James Dennis, vice chairman of the county legislature said in a phone interview.

“I think almost everyone (in the legislature) would support” banning-the-box, he added.

In the forty-two years Moosewood has been in business, Branca explained, the restaurant has hired several people with felony convictions.

“In practice, we weren’t screening out people (with felony convictions) anyways,” she said. “It was just this artifact on our application that didn’t make sense.”

Branca pointed to the weak labor market in the hospitality industry as yet another reason to remove the question from the application: “There’s a bit of a labor shortage for restaurant workers,” she said.

“Why would we want to have a barrier for people that are interesting in applying?” she asked. “You want to reduce the barriers so you have a richer, broader pool of people to consider for your job. You don’t want to screen them out at the very beginning,” she said.

Skeptics of the ban-the-box ordinance say that employers should have the right to know who they’re hiring at all stages of the application process.

Branca acknowledged that there are many legitimate questions regarding the policy, but clarified: “The ban-the-box movement doesn’t demand that employers don’t do background checks, or don’t do credit checks.”

“I think that employers need to understand what this does and does not obligate them to do,” she went on. “It doesn’t obligate (employers) to hire everyone that applies. It doesn’t obligate (employers)  to hire a particular individual.”

“It does obligate you to not screen them out in the application process,” Branca said. “It’s pretty low-risk.”

In New York State, an employer cannot deny someone with a criminal history employment based on their crime, unless the crime-in-question could impact the job that is being applied for.

“If someone was convicted of a financial crime, you probably wouldn’t want to put them into a financial position. It probably wouldn’t be a good idea,” said Will Burbank, a member of the Tompkins County Legislature.

Branca said that, although she would have to see an official, proposed policy to lend her full support to it, “generally, we would be very supportive of” the county making all private and public businesses ban-the-box.

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Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly described Moosewood as vegan.

Kyle Friend

A senior at Cornell University, Kyle covers the affordable housing crisis for the Ithaca Voice. Reach him through e-mail: kyleafriend@gmail.com.