Phelps backs 'ban the box' for public employment


Cole Phelps, Democratic candidate for the N.C. Senate in the 1st District, speaks to the Elizabeth City Together civic group at St. James AME Zion Church in Elizabeth City, Monday night.


By Reggie Ponder
Staff Writer

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

The Democratic candidate for N.C. Senate in the 1st District told an audience in Elizabeth City this week that he favors so-called “ban the box” legislation to give former felons a better chance of gaining public employment.

Cole Phelps, a county commissioner in Washington County, told a gathering of the Elizabeth City Together civic group at St. James AME Zion Church Monday evening that his own county has removed the felony conviction section from its county employment application.

Applicants for jobs with Washington County are still screened prior to employment, but the new policy allows an applicant with a felony conviction to “get through the door” and possibly be interviewed for a position, Phelps said.

Asked Monday if he would support statewide “ban the box” legislation, Phelps said he “absolutely” would. “Ban the box” is a term used to describe proposals by the nonprofit N.C. Second Chance Alliance and others to eliminate the section on employment applications that asks about criminal convictions or past incarceration.

On Wednesday, Phelps clarified that what he supports is banning the box statewide for public employment — not necessarily a mandate for private employers.

“I fully support a public ban on the box,” Phelps said.

Phelps said the question of banning the box for private employers needs further study.

“It would appear important to first understand its implementation and impact prior to entering the private sector,” Phelps said, adding “I would like to spend more time speaking with the business community about this.”

Phelps said his support for ban the box legislation is not inconsistent with being tough on crime.

“We must be tough on crime,” Phelps said. “Toughness also means having compassion for those who have served their time, repaying their debt to society and are deserving of a second chance.”

Supporters of ban the box say the idea is not to eliminate background checks or pre-employment screening but rather to give people with criminal convictions or a history of incarceration an opportunity to get their foot in the door with potential employers. Once the screening process begins an applicant would be able to explain the nature of the crime and provide details about the circumstances and aftermath, and also would be able to review records for accuracy.

Phelps’ opponent in the 1st Senate District, state Rep. Bob Steinburg, R-Chowan, said he has come across ban-the-box proposals while discussing corrections reform. He said he supports the overall idea of enabling people who have served their time the opportunity to seek employment. 

“Just because someone has been convicted of  a crime doesn’t mean they can’t turn their life around,” Steinburg said.

But banning the box could have unforeseen consequences, he said.

“There are so many different tentacles that could go into all of this,” Steinburg said.

Steinburg said he would be concerned about the specific language in any proposed legislation. He would be especially attentive, he said, to issues of liability and fairness to all applicants — including those without criminal convictions.

“I think a better solution might be for those people who are going to be applying for these jobs to be forthright in talking abut how these things they were convicted of have been overcome,” Steinburg said.

Ban the box “has the potential to be a legal nightmare” for employers “or a lawyer’s dream,” Steinburg added. “This must have been dreamed up by lawyers.”

During his remarks to the Elizabeth City Together group on Monday, Phelps talked a great deal about his support for public education, criticizing the General Assembly for eliminating additional pay for teachers with master’s degrees.

Steinburg said Tuesday that master’s pay continues for those who were already getting it but acknowledged it will not be available for teachers earning master’s degrees now.

Phelps said he has worked with the other county commissioners in Washington County to provide teachers a local salary supplement for the first time. He said he was in his 20s at the time and all the other commissioners on the board were over 60, which he said proves he knows how to compromise and “work across the aisle.”

Phelps said Washington commissioners funded Chromebooks for all students in the county school district, then realized many of them didn’t have broadband access at home. That convinced him he needs to work for broadband access in rural counties, he said.

Phelps said the county found a creative way to improve internet access for students by attaching Wi-Fi to school buses, which are parked all around the county.

City Councilman Johnnie Walton, who attended the meeting, asked Phelps about communities promoting themselves as destinations for retirees. Walton said Edenton had become a certified retirement community but had then lost population.

Phelps said because the population of retirees is increasing, it’s important to have enough health care options and assisted living communities available for them. He also believes North Carolina needs to expand Medicaid — something Steinburg, citing the cost, has opposed.

Phelps pointed out he is a first generation college graduate in his family and has a foundation that awards college scholarships to students from Washington County.

“When I say I’m for education I’m not just talking it, I’m walking it,” Phelps said.