By Maya Leshikar
The Seattle Times
SEATTLE — Lawmakers in Washington state are discussing a bill that would end the automatic disqualification of people with certain criminal convictions from working with vulnerable populations in health care or home care.
Bill sponsors say it would address the shortage of qualified caretakers and empower people with convictions to take charge of their lives.
House Bill 1411 would allow people with certain crimes on their record to be eligible to apply for jobs with the Department of Social and Health Services at long-term care facilities or as in-home caretakers.
DSHS is in charge of investigating the backgrounds of people who may have unsupervised access to children, vulnerable adults or people with disabilities. Employers now cannot hire someone with certain disqualifying convictions for a position that works with these populations.
In Washington, 2.14 million people have a criminal record of some kind.
Bill sponsor Rep. Tarra Simmons, a Bremerton Democrat, testified that people can change. She points to herself, a former nurse who also spent time incarcerated on a drug conviction. She also spent nine years in recovery for substance abuse.
Though a nurse, she said she was unable to be a paid caregiver for her dying father because of the rigidity of the DSHS background checks, all the while being able to keep her registered nurse license.
“This barrier made it to where my father spent his last days in a nursing home because I couldn’t afford to stop working and care for him,” she said. “It’s a tragedy that our laws are making these hard decisions for families all across Washington.”
Simmons pointed out how hard it can be for families to find in-home caregivers. She also said that many formerly incarcerated people already do the work of caregiving but are not being paid for it.
The bill will help meet a few goals at once, she said. It will increase the supply of eligible workers for those in need of care; it will allow people with convictions to take care of loved ones for compensation; and it will advance racial equity because communities of color are disproportionately impacted by the criminal justice system, Simmons said.
Disability rights advocates raised concerns on behalf of the disabled community, but supported the intent of the bill. The bill does not specify whether clients would be notified of a worker’s criminal record, and some argued that people have a right to know who is working with them.
Darya Farivar, public policy director with Disability Rights Washington, a nonprofit that advocates for the rights of people with disabilities, said DRW “believes in the importance of employment opportunities for people who have been involved in the criminal legal system …”
“However, folks with disabilities who experience abuse are more likely to experience it at the hands of their caregivers, family members, and the people closest to them. Making changes to laws which govern caregiving need to center on both the caregivers and those who rely on them,” Farivar said in an email.
Sandra Latham, the mother of a disabled adult, urged the sponsors to add more safeguards to protect the most vulnerable from abuse and neglect. She wants the bill to clarify that disabled clients will have access to the details of a worker’s criminal history and be able to refuse any candidate that applies to work with them.
“The care and dignity of the disabled individuals must come first,” Latham said.
In some cases, a person with a disqualifying crime on their record can be granted a certificate of restoration if a specific amount of time has passed since the end of their sentence, according to the bill.
The waiting period lasts one year for a misdemeanor when sentenced to probation; 18 months for a misdemeanor when sentenced to confinement; two years for a class B or C felony; and five years for a violent offense.
Eligibility is never restored for people convicted of offenses such as a class A felony, a sex offense, a crime that includes sexual motivation or vehicular assault.
A public entity cannot discriminate against a person holding a certificate solely based on criminal history, with many exceptions made for criminal-justice agencies, the Washington State Bar Association and other organizations.
Still, those with felonies are unable to hold paid positions that give them unsupervised access tending to vulnerable populations.
Under HB 1411, the waiting period for selling drug paraphernalia or selling marijuana to a minor would be three years. It would be at least five years for those convicted of theft, second-degree robbery, second-degree extortion, or second or third-degree assault.
The exemption wouldn’t apply to crimes involving the abuse, neglect, personal or financial exploitation or abandonment of a minor or vulnerable adult.
A similar bill, House Bill 1399, is designed to reduce barriers for those with felonies to get professional licenses that are required for jobs as architects, cosmetologists, security guards, funeral directors and other careers.
Susan Mason, a formerly incarcerated person who heads an organization to help people reintegrate into society, said people with criminal records who no longer have contact with the criminal-justice system continue to be marginalized for life. She said that in 2007 she wanted to enter a surgical-technician program, but her conviction from four years before that stood in her way.
“The milk in my refrigerator has a cutoff date,” Mason said, “but my sentence doesn’t.”