Two national chain stores fined for violating Buffalo's "ban the box" ordinance

Jan 21, 2016

It's an ordinance that few people may know exists. But two national retailers - Big Lots and Marshalls - will pay fines for violating a Buffalo ordinance known as "ban the box," which forbids questions about criminal history on an initial job application.


Under the ordinance, which is also in effect in Rochester and Syracuse, employers may not ask about a job candidate's criminal history until the first interview. Leaving the question off initial job applications, supporters say, gives people with a criminal past a better chance to rebuild their lives.

"Under New York law, under the human rights and the corrections law, an employer is prohibited from discriminating against an applicant on the basis of an arrest or conviction record," said Amy Hemenway, a local attorney with Harter, Secrest & Emery who is experienced in the subject. "In order to make a decision, you have to show that there's either a direct relationship between the conviction and job sought, or some unreasonable risk to safety."

Hemenway admits that having the ordinance in effect in some municipalites but not in others creates a potential problem for national chains. She told WBFO that her firm advises clients to be cautious and leave questions about criminal history off the application. 

Under their settlement with Attorney General Schneiderman's office, Big Lots and Marshalls will adjust their applications for stores throughout the state, leaving out questions about criminal history. Big Lots will pay a $100,000 fine while Marshalls will pay $95,000. 

Both chains also agreed to make "affirmative efforts" to recruit applicants with criminal histories through an organization that trains former prisoners. 

Buffalo's "Ban the Box" ordinance has been in effect since 2014.