Matt Birong: Giving those with criminal records a working chance

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Matt Birong, who is the owner of 3 Squares Cafe in Vergennes.

I’ve been the chef/owner of 3 Squares Café in Vergennes for nine years. At 3 Squares Café, we strive to have an inclusive work environment. When a position becomes available, we interview and hire employees based on their ability to meet the needs of the position. What we don’t do, is ask about prior criminal convictions on an application. I believe that a criminal conviction should not prevent someone from obtaining future jobs and sustaining a good quality of life.

With increasing incarceration rates especially with nonviolent offenders more of our citizenry is finding themselves at a disadvantage. Once released from corrections they already face many challenges upon re-entering the community that affect their ability to positively transition and not reoffend is linked to many of these challenges, including ability to find employment.

So far, over 100 cities and counties and a total of 20 states across the country have adopted policies to “Ban the Box” or support “Fair Chance Hiring.”


People that are truly trying to put their lives back on track often only need an opportunity to prove themselves. I have employed and befriended many individuals that policies like this negatively impact and I myself would be subject to this screening process. By no means do I feel that employers should lose the right to look into the background of prospective hires but simply be asked to wait until the prospect arrives at stage two of the interview process. Most of the job opportunities we are speaking of are middle- to low-income and entry level. I have found that in the cyber-driven world we live in, with information at our fingertips these background concerns can be answered with a Google search. That being said, people trying to rebuild are up against so much and this legislation is the least we can do to help prevent them from passing back through the “revolving door” and eventually lead to being institutionalized.

Currently in Vermont, H.261 is being considered in House Committee on General, Housing, and Military Affairs. This bill would prohibit employers from requesting information about criminal convictions on an initial application for employment but would not prohibit employers from requiring applicants to disclose conviction history in subsequent employment applications or interviews. That way, employers are deciding if an employee is the right fit for the job based on their qualifications and character, and not on their previous criminal convictions. Prohibiting employers from asking questions about criminal history on an initial application would open more doors for people working to rebuild their lives after being released from corrections.

So far, over 100 cities and counties and a total of 20 states across the country have adopted policies to “Ban the Box” or support “Fair Chance Hiring.” Last April, Gov. Peter Shumlin signed an executive order to ban the box for state jobs. This would remove questions about criminal records from the very first part of job applications for any job in state employment, with exemptions for law enforcement, corrections, and a few other positions. Agencies will continue to conduct background checks, but only after an applicant has otherwise been found qualified for the position.

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Ban the Box policies give all people a fair chance at employment by preventing applicants from being immediately screened out of jobs because of their past and add roadblocks to the future that they are attempting to build. I support H.261 and hope the Legislature will as well so that we can ensure that all Vermonters have a fair chance at employment and the happiness we all seek.

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Bill Mares, VJT Board Member


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