Apple’s firing of ex-con construction workers harsh

Just last month, Apple chief executive Tim Cook made headlines when he wrote a piece in The Washington Post, panning Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act as “very dangerous.” Apple, Cook wrote, does not believe in discrimination and strives to “do business in a way that is just and fair.” This month, the San Francisco Chronicle’s Wendy Lee reported, Apple fired some construction workers at Apple Campus 2 in January because they had been convicted of felonies or face felony charges. Just and fair? Hardly.

Apple would not respond on the record, but someone familiar with the matter said the Apple policy affects only ex-offenders convicted of felonies in the past seven years. The person said that the corporation reviews pending charges and does not automatically discharge those facing prosecution and that the policy exists to promote quality and safety.

Pat Nolan, a former GOP California lawmaker who pleaded guilty to federal racketeering charges, now pushes for criminal justice reform for the American Conservative Union. Nolan told me the policy is “baffling,” given that Apple likes to style itself as a “progressive” employer. (I should mention that in 1987, I worked for Nolan.) “Construction work is one of the few types of jobs that ex-offenders can typically get,” he said. “They’re willing to work hard. They put in the long hours necessary.”

Apple has not alleged that any of the fewer than five workers let go were not pulling their weight on the job. “Think what that does to somebody who’s kept their nose clean,” Nolan added. These guys did everything right, and it still wasn’t enough. Now they cannot support their families.

Nolan agreed that there are jobs from which employers might reasonably bar ex-cons. Most businesses, for example, would not want to hire check kiters to operate cash registers. You don’t want convicted child molesters working in public schools. Nolan thinks private employers should be able to tailor employment policies to keep certain offenders from sensitive jobs.

But in this case, Iron Workers Local 377 President Michael Theriault explained, “we haven’t had a real explanation as to why the policy is there in the first place. We have no idea what they’re afraid of.” I tried, but Apple was its usual secretive self.

Liberals who want to outlaw employers from asking about criminal records, I think, are not looking at the full public-safety picture. Me, I could support a tech firm’s decision not to hire identity thieves for jobs that would give them access to proprietary information. But as Mindy Kener of the Anders &Anders Foundation, which helps ex-cons find good jobs, noted, “there’s nothing proprietary about putting in rebar or cement.”

Theriault noted that though Apple may have canned only a few construction workers, that tells other ex-cons they need not apply for a bite at the Apple.

Even some law-and-order types are appalled. Michael Rushford of the pro-enforcement Criminal Justice Legal Foundation told me that when an ex-con has paid his dues, “give him a chance to work.” Construction provides good jobs for ex-offenders hungry for a second chance. When these guys turn around their lives, everyone wins. “What’s he going to do,” Rushford asked about a fired ex-con, “steal the cement?”

Email Debra J. Saunders at dsaunders@sfchronicle.com.

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