Editor’s note: Gov. Tom Wolf has signed five bills into law in 2019, but that’s just a fraction of the hundreds of bills introduced at the Capitol. This series examines some of the legislation that’s circulating in Harrisburg but hasn’t drawn much attention.
HARRISBURG — People with criminal records would have an easier time getting licenses for jobs they are now barred from getting licenses to do under reforms proposed in both chambers of the General Assembly.
The bills target occupations governed by licensing boards — in Pennsylvania that covers everything from health care to cosmetology, massage therapists, landscape architects and funeral directors.
In the 1950s, 1-in-20 workers in Pennsylvania had jobs that required a state license. Today 1-in-5 jobs do, said Steve Bloom, a former state lawmaker who is now senior vice president at The Commonwealth Foundation, a conservative think tank based in Harrisburg.
At a time when the state is seeing historically-low unemployment rates, the push to reform the state’s occupational licensing law is gaining support from business groups interested in responding to worker shortages and groups interested in criminal justice reform.
Critics of the existing law note that the state’s current licensing rules create situations where inmates get training for jobs they can’t legally get in Pennsylvania once they're released from prison.
Pennsylvania’s unemployment rate dropped to 3.6 percent in April, the lowest it’s been since 1976, according to the state Department of Labor and Industry.
“There is a magical nexus” on this issue that appeals to people across the political spectrum, Bloom said.
Legislation aimed at reforming the state’s occupational licensing has gained bipartisan support in the Legislature, as well as the backing of Gov. Tom Wolf, Bloom said.
State Sen. John DiSanto, R-Dauphin County, is one of the co-sponsors of the Senate version. In a May 22 press conference at a CareerLink Center in Harrisburg, DiSanto said that the reforms would build on other criminal justice reforms to solidly Pennsylvania’s position as “first in second chances.”
DiSanto added, that “too often, qualified applicants are denied the right to work due to old or irrelevant criminal convictions.”
DiSanto’s Senate Bill 637 was introduced on May 13. Lawmakers in the state House introduced House Bill 1477 on May 22.
The legislation would bar licensing boards from refusing licenses to people based on past criminal offenses that had nothing to do with the field they want to work in.
“The Clean Slate Act we passed last year clears their criminal records of nonviolent offenses after 10 years without a subsequent arrest,” said state Rep. Sheryl Delozier, R-Cumberland County in announcing the bill. “Our latest initiative will ensure licensure for employment isn’t a barrier to an ex-offender re-entering the workforce, unless his or her conviction is directly related to the profession.”
The House bill would also require that boards publish information about what criminal convictions would bar a candidate from getting a license so that people can be informed before they get training, according to a memo explaining the bill. It would also ask that boards consider how much time has passed since the license applicant was convicted of a crime, according to that memo.
“We simply can’t continue to judge people by their worst day and hold them back from enriching their lives and the lives of others due to mistakes made in the past that have no impact on someone’s ability to do a job,” said state Rep. Jordan Harris, D-Philadelphia, who joined Delozier in authoring the House legislation.