© 2023 Iowa Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

State Supreme Court Partially Upholds Waterloo's 'Ban The Box' Ordinance

John Pemble
IPR file
The Iowa Supreme Court partially upheld Waterloo's "ban the box ordinance", finding that employers can't ask about an applicant's criminal history until they make a conditional job offer.

The Iowa Supreme Court has upheld parts of a Waterloo “ban the box” ordinance preventing businesses from asking about prospective employees’ criminal histories on job applications. The court struck down other parts of the measure, which is meant to boost employment and reduce recidivism.

Under the 5 to 1 ruling released Friday, the court upheld the part of Waterloo’s Fair Chance Initiative policy that prevents employers from asking about an applicant’s criminal history until they make a conditional job offer.

The policy, which covers private as well as public employers, is the first of its kind in Iowa. Waterloo Mayor Quentin Hart says he sees the ruling as a win.

“I think it’s almost a complete victory,” Hart said. “We are ecstatic that…and encouraged by this historic ruling by the Iowa Supreme Court on our Fair Chance Initiative.”

Hart said the court’s ruling preserved a key component of the ordinance: pushing off conversations about criminal histories until further into the review process, after applicants have the chance to get their foot in the door.

“Our goal from the beginning was to try to help people to be able to get into the interview process,” Hart said. “Someone could’ve gotten out and gotten in trouble and had a Master’s degree in marketing and some of those things but they weren’t able to even get into the door to get an interview.”

The ruling did strike down portions of the measure that banned employers from making a hiring decision solely on a worker’s criminal record.

The Iowa Association of Business and Industry sued Waterloo after the city passed the ordinance in 2019, arguing that the policy was in violation of a state law that limits cities’ abilities to regulate businesses’ hiring decisions.

“We conclude that the ordinance is preempted to the extent it purports to regulate whether an employer can consider an employee’s criminal history at all— i.e., to the extent it regulates a term and condition of employment. However, it is not preempted where it only regulates timing, because that is not a term or condition of employment,” Justice Edward Mansfield wrote in the majority opinion.

Proponents say the policy can help address racial disparities in employment and wealth in the community, where disproportionate policing of Black residents has helped fuel persistent inequities.

A 2018 analysis by the outlet 24/7 Wall Street labeled the Waterloo-Cedar Falls metro area as the worst city in the U.S. for Black people, noting that “[n]o U.S. metro area has larger social and economic disparities along racial lines than Waterloo-Cedar Falls, Iowa”. The outlet’s 2019 ranking labeled the city the nation’s third worst for Black Americans.

The city of Waterloo has the largest Black population in the state per capita, at nearly 17 percent. Research conducted by a University of Iowa law student has demonstrated that Black Hawk County, home of Waterloo, is incarcerating Black residents at disproportionately high rates; over the course of the study, half of the people the county sent to prison were Black, though just 10 percent of the county’s population is Black.

State studies dating back two decades have found racial disparities in charging and sentencing outcomes, trends that were most apparent in Black Hawk County.

In the course of the lawsuit, Waterloo Human Rights Commission Executive Director Abraham Funchess noted he was “concerned that this disparity could lead to discriminatory employment practices when an applicant’s criminal history was considered.”

The American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa, which filed an amicus brief in the case, called the ruling an important step towards combating racial disparities in the state.

"Today’s decision is an important partial win for local efforts to protect against race discrimination in hiring. "Ban-the-box" policies are vital to remedying racial disparities in employment. Otherwise, the existing racial disparities in our criminal justice system are only amplified,” the group’s statement on the ruling reads in part.

The organization says the court’s decision is a “call to action” for cities across the state to follow Waterloo’s lead, and for Iowa lawmakers to implement a statewide ban the box policy.

Kate Payne was an Iowa City-based Reporter