Learn Your Rights: Discrimination, HIV/AIDS, Addiction and Criminal Records

Table of Contents

Introduction

Are you somebody with ...

  • HIV/AIDS?
  • An alcohol or drug history?
  • A criminal record?

If so, then there is a good chance you have suffered illegal discrimination.

Does this sound familiar?

employer talking to employee

You can protect yourself if you learn your rights!

Who Should Read This Booklet?

This booklet is for New Yorkers with HIV or AIDS, a history of drug or alcohol problems, and/or a criminal record who want to know their rights so they can avoid discrimination.

How This Booklet Can Help You Avoid Discrimination

This booklet will help you avoid discrimination in employment, housing, health care and other areas and teach you what you can do if you are discriminated against. It will tell you about:

  • laws that make it illegal to discriminate against people with HIV/AIDS, alcohol or drug addiction, and criminal records;
  • limits on what employers, landlords, and others may ask about your HIV status, alcohol or drug addiction, or criminal record;
  • how you can get a job or housing even if you have HIV/AIDS, an alcohol or drug addiction, or a criminal record;
  • what you can do when faced with illegal discrimination.

There is plenty of discrimination out there. But that does not mean you cannot do something to overcome it. Your chances improve if you LEARN THE RULES and PREPARE.

Which Laws Protect You From Discrimination?

Federal and state laws make it illegal to discriminate against people with "disabilities" -- a legal term that includes HIV/AIDS and drug and alcohol addiction. People with HIV/AIDS, people in recovery from drug addiction (but not people currently using drugs illegally), and people with a past or current alcohol problem are in most cases protected from discrimination under these laws. These laws include the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and the Fair Housing Act, as well as the New York State and New York City Human Rights Laws. The State and City Human Rights Laws also outlaw job discrimination based on a criminal record, as does the New York Correction Law, Article 23-A.

Job Discrimination

Legal Rights of People With HIV/AIDS and Alcohol or Drug Histories

May an employer deny you a job, fire you, or treat you differently because you have HIV/AIDS? An addiction history?

Usually no. If you are qualified for the job, it is illegal for employers to discriminate against you because you have HIV or AIDS, a past drug problem, or past or current alcohol problem, or because you are in treatment, including methadone. These are all considered "disabilities" under laws that make it illegal to discriminate against people with disabilities. But you are not protected by these laws if you are currently using drugs illegally.

But it is legal for your boss to fire you for not doing your job or for breaking workplace rules. For example, if your job says you have to call in for sick days and you do not do it, it is legal for your boss to fire you even if your HIV or alcoholism is the reason you were home sick.

Does an employer need to give you an "accommodation" if you have HIV/AIDS or an alcohol or drug history?

If you have a disability, you have the right to a "reasonable accommodation," such as a change in your work schedule, if you need it in order to do your job. The only reason your boss would not need to give you the accommodation is if it would be too costly or too much of a burden. But you usually need to ask for the accommodation, and you may need to provide written proof from your doctor.

How do employers learn about your HIV status? What about your alcohol or drug history?

Employers often find out that you have HIV/AIDS or an alcohol or drug history through health questions on job applications and in interviews, medical exams or medical forms, drug tests, or drug or alcohol-related arrests or convictions.

What does an employer have the right to know?

It depends on when the employer asks.

Job Applicants. Before offering you a job, employers may not ask about your disabilities. These questions are illegal:

  • "Do you have HIV or AIDS?"
  • "Have you ever been in alcohol or drug treatment?"
  • "Have you ever been addicted to drugs or alcohol?"

But it is legal for employers to ask whether you have a physical or mental condition that might make you unable to do the job. They may also ask about current or past alcohol or illegal drug use. Examples of legal questions are:

  • "Have you ever used illegal drugs?"
  • "Do you drink alcohol?"
  • "Have you ever been convicted of driving under the influence?"

It is also legal for an employer to make you take a drug test. But it is illegal for an employer to ask questions about how much you drink or how much you used drugs because those questions might reveal an addiction.

After job offer -- before job starts. After making a job offer that is conditioned on passing a medical exam or filling out a medical form, it is legal for employers to require you to pass a medical exam as long as everyone offered the same position is required to take a medical exam. This means it is illegal for an employer to ask only you to take a medical exam and drug test just because the employer knows you are in recovery.

Current employees. Once you start work, your employer may only make you take a medical exam or ask for medical information if the employer reasonably believes you have a medical condition that could hurt your job performance or be a "direct threat" in the workplace.

Does your employer have to keep your medical information private?

Yes, if the employer gets the information from a required medical exam (either before or after you started the job) or a voluntary health program on the work site. Your employer must also keep the confidentiality of any HIV information that your health care providers give your employer with your written consent, and any alcohol or drug treatment information given by your treatment program, with your written consent. If you -- or your co-workers -- tell your employer about your disability in any other way, however, the employer may not need to keep the information confidential. For example, if you tell your boss you are upset because you just found out you have HIV, your boss would not have to keep that information confidential.

Is it legal for your doctor to tell your employer that you have HIV/AIDS?

Only if your doctor has your written consent to give them your information. New York law (Article 27-F of the Public Health Law) says that most health and social service providers must keep HIV information confidential. (For more information, see HIV/AIDS: Testing, Confidentiality and Discrimination:d What You Need to Know About New York Law, one of the books listed at the end.) But if your employer legally requires your medical information (see pages 3 and 4), and you do not sign a consent form to let your doctor disclose your HIV status, the employer may legally deny you the job. Have your doctor read medical forms carefully to make sure HIV information really is required.

Is it legal for your alcohol or drug treatment program to give information to your employer about your treatment?

Not without your written consent. Federal confidentiality laws require alcohol and drug treatment and prevention programs to get written consent before giving out information about their patients' alcohol or drug treatment. This is true even if your employer has required you to attend a treatment program. As mentioned above though, your employer may sometimes legally require written proof about your treatment. If you do not agree to the program's giving that information, you might be fired.

What can you do if an employer asks an illegal question or discriminates against you?

Call the New York State Division of Human Rights at (888) 392-3644, New York City Commission on Human Rights at (212) 306-7450, U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission at (800) 669-4000, or Legal Action Center at (212) 243-1313. There are deadlines, so call soon after the illegal act happens!

courthouse

Legal Rights Of People With Criminal Records

Do you have a criminal record?

To understand your rights, you need to know if you have a criminal record and what is on it. The fact that you have been arrested DOES NOT mean you have been convicted of a "crime." Here are some important words to understand:

  • felonies and misdemeanors -- these ARE "crimes." If you have been convicted of a felony or misdemeanor, you have a "criminal conviction," even if you pled guilty or did not serve any time.
  • violations (both sealed and unsealed) -- these are non-criminal convictions, or "offenses." If you have been convicted of a violation, but have no felony or misdemeanor convictions, then you do have a "conviction" but you do not have any "criminal convictions."
  • youthful offender adjudications (YOs) -- these are NOT "convictions" or "crimes." They are adjudications for eligible youth ages 16-18. Adjudications are "findings."
  • juvenile delinquencies (JDs) -- these are NOT "convictions" or "crimes." They are adjudications for eligible youth ages 7-15. Adjudications are "findings."
  • dismissals, acquittals and decline to prosecutes -- these are arrests where you were not convicted.

How can employers find out about your criminal record?

Employers often find out that applicants have a criminal record by:

  • questions on job applications and in interviews.
  • getting a criminal background report (sometimes called a "credit report" or "consumer report") from a background check company that gets the information from the courts or other publicly available sources. It is legal for these reports to include felony and misdemeanor convictions, but not (1) arrests where you were not convicted, (2) non-criminal violations, such as disorderly conduct, or (3) YOs.
  • fingerprinting you and getting your "rap sheet" from the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services or the FBI. Only some employers, including the government, can do this. It is legal for these reports to include felonies, misdemeanors and violations, but only if they are not sealed. (Most violations and a very few felonies and misdemeanors can be sealed. For more information, see Lowering Criminal Record Barriers: Certificates of Relief/Good Conduct and Record Sealing, one of the books listed at the end.) These reports may not include YOs.

May an employer deny you a job or fire you because of your criminal record?

It is illegal for an employer to deny you a job, fire you, or discriminate against you because of arrests for which you were not convicted, sealed felonies, misdemeanors or violations, or youthful offender (YO) adjudications. These protections are in both the New York State and New York City Human Rights Laws but do not apply to federal jobs.

Under New York State Law, it is also illegal for employers to unfairly deny you a job or fire you because of past convictions. An employer may only deny you a job or fire you because of your criminal convictions if they are "directly related" to the job in question OR if hiring you would create an "unreasonable risk" to the safety of people or property.

In making that decision, an employer must look at your age at the time of the conviction and the number of years that have passed, the duties of the job, and evidence of your rehabilitation (this refers to what you have done to improve yourself and lead a responsible life since your conviction), including whether you got a Certificate of Relief from Disabilities or Certificate of Good Conduct (details below). Employers who refuse to hire individuals with felonies or with any convictions are violating the law! These rules also apply to government agencies that issue licenses to work in various fields. These legal protections are in Article 23-A of the New York Correction Law and the New York State and New York City Human Rights Laws.

Even though these laws protect people from discrimination, other laws limit job opportunities in certain fields for people with certain felonies or misdemeanors. For example, people with some criminal convictions may not work in parts of the banking industry and may have a hard time getting a job in the home health care field. There are similar limits -- often called "good moral character" requirements -- for getting licenses to work in some jobs. The good news is that sometimes you can overcome these restrictions and get the job or license by showing that you have been rehabilitated (turned your life around) (details below).

Although federal law does not specifically bar discrimination because of a criminal record, a guidance from the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) says that refusing to hire people because of their criminal record can be a form of race discrimination because people of color are arrested and convicted at much higher rates than whites. Employers may only refuse to hire people because of a criminal record if it is "job-related" and refusing to hire you is "consistent with business necessity."

May employers ask about your criminal convictions?

Yes. In New York, it is legal for employers to ask about criminal convictions and violations that have not been sealed. But it is illegal for them to ask about sealed felonies, misdemeanors and violations and Youthful Offender (YO) adjudications. Unfortunately, the law is not clear about whether you can lie or not answer illegal questions about sealed convictions and YOs. If a question asks for both information employers are allowed to ask and information they are not allowed to ask, give them only the information they are allowed to ask for. If the question only asks for information the employer is not allowed, we think you are permitted to say "no," but courts have not ruled clearly on that issue.

May employers ask about arrests?

No. It is illegal in New York for employers (except the federal government and law enforcement) to ask about arrests for which you were not convicted. If you are asked such a question, and you were acquitted or all the charges were dismissed, you do not need to list the arrest. However, you should list any criminal convictions (misdemeanors and felonies) or violations that are not sealed.

Should you tell the truth about your criminal convictions on a job application?

Yes. Tell the truth. While it is tempting to lie in the hope that the employer will not find out about your criminal record, most employers are running criminal background checks, so they likely will find out anyway.

If you lie about your convictions and get the job, may an employer legally fire you when the truth comes out?

Yes. If you lie (even if you leave out information or leave the answer blank), the employer legally may deny you the job or fire you because you lied or did not give a full answer. This is true even if your criminal record should not have stopped you from getting the job and you would have been a good employee. In rare cases, you could even be charged with a misdemeanor if you lie on a job application.

How can you improve your chances of getting a job?

Your chances will improve greatly if you prepare! Try the following steps:

  • Get your rap sheet and correct any mistakes. You cannot correctly answer criminal record questions on a job application if you do not know what is on your rap sheet. Find out what is on your rap sheet and correct any mistakes -- these are very common. You can get your rap sheet by calling the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services (DCJS), (518) 457-9847 or the Legal Action Center, (212) 243-1313. Read Your New York State Rap Sheet: A Guide to Getting, Understanding, and Correcting Your Criminal Record (listed at the end).
  • Upgrade your less-than-honorable military discharge. Contact the Board of Correction of Naval Records ((703) 604-6884 or 6885) (Navy and Marines), Army Review Boards Agency ((703) 545-6900), or Air Force Military Personnel Center ((800) 525-0102) to see if you are eligible.
  • Get a Certificate of Relief from Disabilities or Certificate of Good Conduct. These certificates show that New York State considers you to be "rehabilitated" and they also remove some legal barriers that stop people with criminal records from getting certain jobs or licenses. Read Lowering Criminal Record Barriers: Certificates of Relief/Good Conduct and Record Sealing (listed at the end of this booklet).
  • Sell yourself. Many employers assume that people with criminal records will not be good employees and will commit more crimes. Be prepared to show the employer all the positive things you have done since your convictions. Read How to Gather Evidence of Rehabilitation (listed at the end of this booklet).

What can you do if you were denied a job or fired because of your criminal record?

Step 1: Try to find out if you were denied the job because of your criminal record (not something else). New York law gives you the right to ask the employer for a letter explaining why it denied you the job. For a sample, see Model Letter Asking for Written Explanation for Job Denial (Under Correction Law 754) and Copy of Background Check (listed at the end).

Step 2: If the employer denied you a job or fired you because of criminal record information on a background check report, ask the employer for a copy of the report. Under federal law, the employer has to give you the report before the job denial or firing, but employers often do not. The employer must also give you the name, address and phone number of the credit reporting agency that wrote the report. That agency must give you the report free of charge if you ask for it within 60 days of the job denial or termination. For a sample, see Model Letter Asking for Written Explanation for Job Denial (Under Correction Law 754) and Copy of Background Check (listed at the end).

Step 3: Make sure the information the employer used was correct! If the background report gave wrong information about your criminal record, bring proof to the employer and ask the employer to change its decision. Also contact the credit reporting agency and demand that the agency correct your report. Federal law requires them to correct mistakes.

Even if the criminal record information is correct, the employer might have violated Article 23-A of the New York Correction Law or the Human Rights Law, described above. If you think the employer violated these laws, call the New York State Division of Human Rights at (888) 392-3644 or the New York City Commission on Human Rights at (212) 306-7450.

The employer may also have violated federal race discrimination laws, described above. You may call the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission at (800) 669-4000 to file a complaint.

Or call the Legal Action Center at (212) 243-1313. (Because we get so many calls, you may be told to call back on a specific date.)

housing

Housing Discrimination

Legal Rights of People With HIV/AIDS and Alcohol or Drug Problems

May a landlord refuse to rent to you because you have HIV/AIDS or an addiction history?

No. It is illegal for a real estate broker or anyone renting (or selling) a home or apartment to discriminate against you because you have HIV/AIDS or an alcohol or drug problem, if you otherwise qualify for the housing. Persons with HIV/AIDS, past alcohol or drug problems, and current alcohol problems are considered persons with disabilities under the law, just as they are for employment. BUT the law does not protect you if you are currently using drugs illegally.

May a landlord ask about your HIV status or drug or alcohol problem?

No. Landlords, sellers, and brokers may not ask you about your HIV/AIDS or drug or alcohol addiction but they may ask you about illegal drug use and refuse to rent or sell to you if you are currently using drugs illegally.

What if a landlord finds out about your HIV/AIDS or drug or alcohol history? May the landlord evict you?

No. A landlord may not harass or evict you because of your disabilities. But it is legal to evict you for using drugs illegally or selling drugs.

May your landlord or neighbors legally tell others that you have HIV/AIDS?

Usually, yes. New York's HIV confidentiality law does not apply to landlords and neighbors. It only applies if your landlord or neighbor learned your HIV status from your health or social service provider after you signed a consent form allowing that disclosure.

What can you do if you were denied housing because of your HIV status or drug or alcohol problem?

Call the New York State Division of Human Rights at (888) 392-3644, New York City Commission on Human Rights at (212) 306-7450, or Legal Action Center at (212) 243-1313. There are deadlines, so call soon after the illegal act happens!

Legal Rights of People With Criminal Records

May a landlord refuse to rent to you because or your criminal record?

For the most part, yes. There are no laws that specifically make it illegal to deny housing because of a criminal record. But there are some protections, explained below.

The New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) has rules that bar people with most criminal convictions from living in NYCHA housing or getting Housing Choice (Section 8) vouchers for a certain number of years after the end of their sentence. The waiting time depends on the number and seriousness of your criminal convictions. BUT you can get this type of housing earlier if you show that you have been rehabilitated. For more information, see How to Get Section 8 or Public Housing Even with a Criminal Record (details at the end of this booklet).

Some protections also apply to private apartments that get government funding and charge reduced rent. For example, many landlords who get funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) must have -- and make available -- a written "tenant selection plan" explaining how they decide whether to admit people with criminal records. If such landlords deny you housing because of your criminal record, they must give you a written explanation of why you were denied and a chance to challenge your denial.

All landlords (even those who do not get government funding) must tell you if they are going to get your criminal background report through a background check company. They also must tell you if they deny you housing because of the background check and give you contact information for the background check company. The company must give you a free copy of the report if you ask for it within 60 days of the housing denial. If there are mistakes in the background check, send proof to the background check company and demand that it correct the report. The company must investigate, make corrections and tell you the result. If a landlord and/or background check company does not follow these laws, you may be able to file a complaint.

Finally, denying housing based on a criminal record might be a form of race discrimination that violates the Fair Housing Act because of the higher rates of arrest and conviction for people of color BUT no court has ruled on this.

What can you do if you were denied housing based on your criminal record or the landlord did not follow the laws described above?

To find out if an apartment is funded by HUD or to make a complaint that a landlord did not follow the HUD rules explained above, call HUD's nearest Regional Office. Offices are located in New York City, (212) 264-8000, Albany, (518) 464-4200, Buffalo, (716) 551-5755, and Syracuse, (315) 477-0616.

To find out how to file other types of complaints or for other information about housing discrimination, call the Legal Action Center at (212) 243-1313. Because of our small staff, we can only take these calls at certain times. There may be deadlines, so call soon after the illegal act happens!

housing

Other Types of Discrimination

Legal Rights of People With HIV/AIDS and Alcohol or Drug Problems

Who else -- other than employers and housing providers -- may not discriminate against people with HIV/AIDS or an addiction history?

Laws making discrimination illegal also cover:

  • "Public accommodations". This includes places like hotels, theaters, restaurants, health care providers, schools, and camps that are privately run but open to everyone.

    As an example, doctors and dentists may not refuse to treat you because you have HIV/AIDS or a drug or alcohol problem. This is true even if you are currently using drugs illegally. While current users are not protected from job discrimination, they are protected from discrimination by health care providers.

    To file a complaint for this type of discrimination, call the New York State Division of Human Rights at (888) 392-3644, New York City Commission on Human Rights at (212) 306-7450, or U.S. Department of Justice at (202) 514-0301 or (888) 736-5551.

  • Government agencies and programs, such as public assistance, Medicaid, and job training programs. To file a complaint against a government agency, contact the federal agency that finances, provides, or regulates the program. The ADA Information Line, (800) 514-0301, can provide assistance on filing a complaint.

Can you be denied life insurance because you have HIV/AIDS?

Yes. It is legal for insurers to make you take an HIV test and deny you insurance if you are HIV-positive.

Can you be denied health insurance because you have HIV?

No. It is illegal to deny health insurance because of HIV status. This is true whether you buy the insurance on your own or get it through work. But, in many cases, insurance companies do not have to cover your HIV-related treatment for the first 12 months of coverage.

Legal Rights of People With Criminal Records

Are people with criminal records protected from discrimination in anything besides employment and occupational licensing?

No. People with criminal records are only protected from discrimination in employment, occupational licenses and, in a limited way, housing.

For More Information

For more information, visit our website, where we have more information about your rights as well as many free publications and webinars. Click "Need Help?" to get more information on several issues, visit "Free Webinars" for webinars we have given on a number of issues or check out the publications below. To find these, click on "Free Publications," then choose among "Alcohol and Drug Publications," "HIV/AIDS Publications" or "Criminal Justice Publications."

  • HIV/AIDS: Testing, Confidentiality and Discrimination. What you need to know about New York Law
  • Know Your Rights: Are You in Recovery From Alcohol or Drug Problems?
  • Know Your Rights: Are You in Recovery From Alcohol or Drug Problems? Rights for Individuals on Medication-Assisted Treatment
  • Your New York State Rap Sheet: A Guide to Getting, Understanding and Correcting Your Criminal Record
  • Lowering Criminal Record Barriers: Certificates of Relief/Good Conduct And Record Sealing
  • Criminal Records and Employment: Protecting Yourself From Discrimination
  • How to Gather Evidence of Rehabilitation
  • Know Your Rights: Understanding Juvenile and Criminal Records and Their Impact on Employment in New York State
  • How to Get Section 8 or Public Housing Even With a Criminal Record
  • Model Letter Asking for Written Explanation for Job Denial (Under Correction Law 754) and Copy of Background Check

Or call the Legal Action Center at (212) 243-1313. If your question is about a criminal record, you may be told to call back at a later date -- the Center gets far more criminal record-related calls than its staff can handle. If you have HIV or an alcohol or drug problem and tell the receptionist, you may get help more quickly as the Center has special funding to deal with those calls.

Good luck.

Remember: You can overcome discrimination if you know your rights!