“In states that have already enacted similar laws, the benefits are clear: employment rates and wages go up when conviction records are sealed…Clean Slate will provide a significant boost to the state’s economy at a time of critical labor shortages.”
As the executive director of District Council 37, the largest public employee union in New York City, I represent over 150,000 workers who do the clerical, maintenance, and technical work that keeps this city running.
I’m proud that union jobs have paved the way for economic security and social mobility for generations of New Yorkers. However, far too many people have been unjustly shut out of decent-paying jobs because of their conviction history. That includes members of our union, as well as their family, friends, and neighbors.
With the recent passage of the Clean Slate Act, New York lawmakers have signaled their commitment to workers who have long faced discrimination and denial of employment, housing, and education opportunities due to their past convictions. We are excited that Gov. Kathy Hochul signed this bill into law finally giving people the second chance they deserve.
The Clean Slate Act will automatically seal convictions for most civil purposes after a person has served their time, is discharged from community supervision, and has no new convictions or pending charges after three years for a misdemeanor and eight years for a felony.
The law will restore the power and dignity of workers who have paid their debt to society, yet find that they aren’t truly free to rebuild their lives. They are many of the essential workers who kept our state running through a global pandemic. They are workers who perform some of the hardest labor at the lowest wages. Holding them back from full participation in the workforce is neither fair nor rational.
In states that have already enacted similar laws, the benefits are clear: employment rates and wages go up when conviction records are sealed. In contrast, one study estimated that New York State loses approximately $7.1 billion every year in wages due to unemployment and underemployment of people with conviction records. Clean Slate will provide a significant boost to the state’s economy at a time of critical labor shortages.
In addition to its economic benefits, Clean Slate will be an important step in undoing the damage of decades of under-investment and over-policing of low-income, mostly Black and brown communities. Research shows that people of color are disproportionately impacted at every stage of the criminal legal system, from how frequently they are stopped, frisked, and arrested by police, to the severity of the conviction and sentence to which they are subjected. That conviction resurfaces each time they apply for a job, no matter how long ago the incident happened.
The struggle to obtain employment is compounded by an affordable housing crisis in our state. For people with conviction records, navigating the repeated application fees, credit checks, and background checks can be a daunting and discouraging process which yields no results. Once relegated to working precarious, low-paid jobs, they find that the only place they can live is the shelter system.
The harmful consequences of a conviction affect not only the person with the record, but their children and extended family. Nearly half of American children have at least one parent with a conviction. Among the approximately 15,000 families that end up in the New York City shelter system each night, there are over 26,000 children. The Clean Slate Act will give these families hope for a better future. Everyone deserves a living wage, a safe place to live, and a stable environment to raise their children.
We’re about to see change for over 2.3 million people with conviction records in New York State. We stand with a diverse coalition of supporters that includes not only unions, but major businesses, faith leaders, survivor advocates, and policy organizations, in supporting the implementation of this new law following Gov. Hochul’s signing of the Clean Slate Act. It is an absolutely crucial piece of legislation that will empower workers and help families thrive.
Henry Garrido is the executive director of District Council 37, the largest public employee union in New York City.