California lawsuit says Ralphs broke law by asking job seekers about their criminal history

California sued supermarket chain Ralphs on Thursday, alleging it violated state law by asking job seekers if they had criminal records and illegally rejecting hundreds of applicants.

The California Department of Civil Rights argues that Ralphs Grocery Co. “ignored and continues to ignore” the Fair Opportunity Act “by screening otherwise qualified applicants based on criminal histories that have no adverse relationship to the duties of the job for which they were applying,” according to a department press release.

The law, which came into effect in 2018, was designed to reduce the likelihood of ex-convicts reoffending by giving them opportunities to earn a living.

Generally, employers with five or more employees cannot ask applicants about their criminal history before making job offers and must follow specific procedures for rejecting them. The law says employers can't rescind a job offer if the applicant's conviction, which could be a misdemeanor, won't directly affect job responsibilities.

Instead, the job-seeking Ralphs were given what the suit calls a “confusing and misleading” application form that included questions asking for disclosure of their criminal history. Most applicants whose job offers were revoked were given no way to contact Ralphs to challenge the decision as required by law, the statement said.

“The guidelines provide detailed, unnecessary instructions on how to report convictions by telling applicants that they do not have to answer the question. Furthermore, by suggesting specific convictions that should not be reported in California, the guidelines necessarily indicate that other convictions must be reported,” the lawsuit states.

Between 2018 and 2022, more than 70% of California applicants answered the question anyway, according to the lawsuit.

Some applicants have “lost their job offers based on convictions for a single misdemeanor of excessive noise. Other applicants who had convictions from other states for simple possession of cannabis were also disqualified,” the department's statement said.

“When approximately 70 million Americans have some kind of history, policies like Ralphs' are not only discriminatory and against California law, they make no sense,” department director Kevin Kish said in the statement. “Ralphs has continued to illegally deny jobs to qualified applicants and that is why we are taking them to court.”

An email seeking comment from Ralphs' corporate owner, The Kroger Co., was not immediately returned.

Ralphs has 185 stores in California with about 25,000 employees, according to the lawsuit.

It's the first lawsuit filed over the law, though the Civil Rights Division has reached settlements with other employers in about 70 other cases alleging violations. They include a $100,000 settlement last year on behalf of applicants who were denied jobs at a construction company.