Linda Davidson/The Washington Post - Ryan Moragneel, 30, will benefit from new Maryland legislation that doesn't allow businesses to ask potential employees if they have criminal records until after the initial interview.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on Tuesday accused two major companies of indirectly discriminating against African Americans by using criminal background checks to screen out workers.By Ylan Q. Mui, Wednesday, June 12, 1:59 AM E-mail the writer
The commission said BMW effectively fired 70 black employees with criminal histories from a facility in South Carolina, even though many had been there for years. One woman with 14 years under her belt was let go after a misdemeanor conviction surfaced that was more than 20 years old and carried a $137 fine, according to the EEOC’s lawsuit. The agency also alleged that retailer Dollar General revoked job offers to two black women after conducting criminal background checks. In one case, the EEOC said that the records were inaccurate but that Dollar General declined to reconsider the woman’s application. The other involved a six-year-old drug conviction.
“It is a fairness issue,” said David Lopez, the commission’s general counsel. “Litigation is really, truly the last resort.”
The growing use of criminal background checks in hiring decisions has become a flash point in the broader debate over high unemployment rates among African Americans. Not only did blacks lose more jobs and more wealth than other racial groups during the recession, they also have struggled to gain a foothold in the recovery — an issue some community leaders have called the next front in the civil rights movement. A criminal record, advocates say, is an economic scarlet letter that can send otherwise qualified applicants to the bottom of the pile.
The EEOC lawsuits were brought under the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination against job applicants on the basis of race. Both BMW and Dollar General denied the allegations and said they complied with all laws.
Although the commission said employers are allowed to conduct background checks, it charged that the companies’ blanket policies of not hiring candidates with criminal records amounted to discrimination against African Americans. Justice Department statistics show that blacks accounted for 37 percent of those behind bars last year, even though they make up only 13 percent of the U.S. population.
The EEOC is not alone in focusing on the role of criminal background checks in black employment. Since the recession, seven states — including Maryland — have adopted laws that prohibit employers from including questions about criminal history on job applications.
The movement has been nicknamed “ban the box,” after the box that offenders often are required to mark. Bills are pending in four other states, and at least a dozen local governments have enacted versions of the ban. Business groups have not mounted organized opposition to the measures.
Del. Aisha N. Braveboy (D-Prince George’s), the leader of Maryland’s Legislative Black Caucus, helped spearhead the legislation, which applies only to state government jobs. She said the tight employment market is the top concern in her community, and she connects the problem to the county’s high rates of foreclosure and crime. Helping people find jobs is the first step to addressing broader issues, she said.