Illinois Employers Should Think Twice Before Using Criminal Background Checks Going Forward

On March 23, 2021 Governor Pritzker signed into law Senate Bill 1480 which makes several meaningful changes to the Illinois Human Rights Act (“IHRA”). One significant change under the new law is that employers may not use criminal records when making employment decisions unless they consider specific factors and take certain steps before making a final employment decision. The law goes into effect immediately.

Employment Decisions Based on a Conviction Record Violate the IHRA

It is now a violation of the IHRA to “use a conviction record” as a basis for any employment-related decision, unless the employer can establish either:

  • there is a “substantial relationship” between the criminal conviction and the employee’s job; or
  • hiring or retaining the employee would create an “unreasonable risk” to a specific individual or the public.

To determine whether an “unreasonable risk” exists, employers must consider “whether the employment position offers the opportunity for the same or a similar offense to occur and whether the circumstances leading to the conduct for which the person was convicted will recur in the employment position.” Accordingly, in evaluating whether an “unreasonable risk” exists, employers must evaluate the following six factors:

  1. the length of time since the conviction;
  2. the number of convictions that appear on the conviction record;
  3. the nature and severity of the conviction and its relationship to the safety and security of others;
  4. The facts or circumstances surrounding the conviction;
  5. the age of the employee at the time of the conviction; and
  6. evidence of rehabilitation efforts.

Interactive Process

If an employer determines that one of the two exceptions applies, the employer must engage in an interactive process with the employee or applicant. The employer is required to notify the employee or applicant in writing of its preliminary decision that the employee’s conviction record disqualifies the employee. This notice must include:

  1. notice of the conviction or convictions that are the basis for the preliminary decision and the employer’s reasoning for the disqualification;
  2. a copy of the conviction history report, if any; and
  3. an explanation of the employee’s right to respond to the employer’s preliminary decision before it becomes final. This explanation must inform the employee that the response may include “submission of evidence challenging the accuracy of the conviction record that is the basis for the disqualification, or evidence in mitigation, such as rehabilitation.”

Upon receipt of the employer’s notice, the employee has up to five business days to provide a response before the employer makes a final determination.

Written Final Decision

Before making a final decision, the employer must consider any information submitted by the employee. If the employer determines that the employee or applicant is disqualified “solely or in part because of the employee’s conviction record,” the employer must provide another written notice to the employee. The second notice must include the following:

  1. notice of the conviction or conviction(s) that are the basis for the final decision and the reasoning for the disqualification;
  2. any existing procedures available to the employee to challenge the decision or request a reconsideration; and
  3. a statement that the employee has the right to file a charge with the Illinois Human Rights Department.

Practical Considerations

Illinois employers should reconsider how they will use criminal background checks in the future. While the law does not prohibit an employer from obtaining criminal background checks, it places a significant burden on employers if they want to use this information to make employment-related decisions.

Given the burdensome notice obligations, it may be more practical for employers to forego the use of criminal background checks altogether, unless there is a particularly compelling business reason for doing so. Due to the complexities of this decision, employers should discuss this matter with their employment lawyer. If an employer intends to continue using criminal background checks, it will need to implement appropriate procedures and policies to ensure compliance with the new law.

For additional help navigating these issues, feel free to contact Walker R. Lawrence, a partner in the employment law practice at Levin Ginsburg, at wlawrence@lgattorneys.com, or Joseph A. LaPlaca, an associate attorney at Levin Ginsburg, at jlaplaca@lgattorneys.com.

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