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Legal Remedies and Limitations on the Employment of People with Criminal Records in Pennsylvania


Legal Remedies and Limitations on the Employment of People with Criminal Records in Pennsylvania

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Like most Americans, ex-offenders need to be employed to support themselves and their families.  Moreover, participation in the labor economy is central to most of our identities; our jobs play a major role in defining who we are.  In short, employment is a linchpin to the successful rehabilitation of ex-offenders and their full and productive participation in society. 

Unfortunately, the very existence of any kind of a criminal record is frequently a significant barrier to being hired for a job, or once hired, keeping the job[1].  Increasing numbers of Americans indisputably are passing through the criminal justice system and thus experiencing this employment barrier. The National Employment Law Project estimates that 65 million American adults, over one of every four adults, have criminal records. High unemployment rates make finding employment even more difficult for persons with criminal records, often limiting them to low-wage jobs that offer no future.

The options for ex-offenders who are looking for work are limited.  They can try to clean up their criminal records through expungements or pardons, although these procedures are limited in Pennsylvania.  They can attempt to enforce legal remedies that limit the extent to which criminal records can be considered when employment decisions are made.[2]  They can try to convince an employer to seek a bond against the risk of theft that the employer fears from employing an ex-offender.  Most likely, they do not know of or cannot utilize any of these options, and their only alternatives are a long, dogged and often repetitive job search, work in the underground economy, or a return to a life of crime.

This report outlines the impact of criminal records on employment opportunities in Pennsylvania.  In Part I, we discuss the overall legal framework applicable to the employment of people with criminal records.  In Part II, we list occupations in which criminal records must be considered and which legally prohibit employment of some ex-offenders.  In Part III, we discuss legal rights and remedies for ex-offenders in the employment context, which are derived from state law, race discrimination laws, and Philadelphia and Pittsburgh’s Ban the Box ordinances.


[1]   Some employment or licensing restrictions may also apply to individuals who have “founded” or “indicated” reports of child abuse.  Although they are civil in nature, “indicated” reports of child abuse often carry some of the same employment consequences as criminal convictions, without the procedural safeguards afforded to persons charged with crimes.  Because child abuse reports can affect employment opportunities, a brief discussion of these reports is warranted; please see Appendix A.

[2]   See Part III of this paper.


This report was supported by a grant from the Open Society Institute.