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Criminal Background Checks Upend Job Search For Some Unemployed

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BACKGROUND CHECKS

First, the college sent a letter.

It welcomed Curtis Andrews, Ed.D, Ph.D, to its adjunct faculty. A few days later, the emails about faculty orientation sessions and department meetings started arriving in Andrews' email inbox. But when a college human resources officer called him three times to ask for details about his 2006 wire fraud conviction, Andrews started to suspect that the job was no longer his.

“He just said, 'We’ll be in touch,'” said Andrews. “By that point, I had filled out, I guess, 70, 80 applications. So, I knew all about the box I have to check saying I have been convicted of a crime and that the applications all say that having been convicted may not prevent you from being hired. But you do get the sense that they get one look at a conviction and they put you in the technological trash … This time, they apparently thought I was qualified, then changed their mind.”

About 65 million Americans -- that’s one in four adults -- have an arrest or conviction that can show up on a routine criminal background check. What’s found can effectively upend their search for work or put them out of a job amid one of the most difficult job markets in recent history, according to a new report released by the National Employment Law Project.

In fact, in the years since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, criminal background checks calibrated to detect everything from arrests on dismissed or expunged charges to misdemeanor and felony convictions have become an increasingly common part of the job application process. A 2010 survey of the Society for Human Resources Management's member firms found that more than 90 percent routinely probe job applicants' backgrounds. The trade group’s members are mostly large employers.

A booming private criminal background industry has made clients of all kinds of companies doing everything from cleaning offices and delivering pizzas to sorting and delivering retail merchandise, said Maurice Emsellem, a policy co-director for the National Employment Law Project and one of the researchers behind the NELP report.

The National Association of Professional Background Screeners, a North Carolina-based industry trade group, could not be reached for comment.

“The industry of private screening firms, they make a big buck off of these practices,” Emsellem said. “They’ve got better and better at identifying and isolating employers who don’t use criminal background checks. The marketing pitch goes something like this: 'All your competitors are doing criminal background checks. Do you want to take the alleged risk?'”

What’s never mentioned is the growing body of evidence suggesting that after as few as three years –- depending on the person’s age and original crime -- people released from prison are no more likely than the general population to commit more crime, Emsellem said. But failing to find legitimate work is a major predictor of a return to jail, according to the NELP report.

That’s part of the reason why nonprofit agencies and even some corrections departments throughout the country are working to help ex-offenders find jobs.

"I think we’ve finally reached the point where people are starting to realize that if we have 3 percent of the world’s population but 20 percent of its prisoners, disqualifying that many people from work once they get out just isn’t sustainable," said Todd Berger, the managing attorney with the Rutgers School of Law-Camden’s Federal Prisoner Reentry Project. Berger oversees a law school clinic in which students seek to resolve some of the issues preventing federal parolees in the area from obtaining work.

In Maryland, Catholic Charities of Baltimore established the Our Daily Bread Employment Center four years ago. The center helps people with criminal backgrounds and limited job skills find work. The program reports serving more than 3,000 people in fiscal 2010. Since July, Our Daily Bread has helped place in jobs 296 of the 540 people who committed to the most intensive part of its program, according to Karen Heyward-West, a program manager for employment services.

Our Daily Bread informs employers about tax credits available to companies that hire ex-offenders, but Heyward-West said one of the program’s most effective tools is the mock interview. About 80 percent of the companies that send volunteer representatives to conduct mock interviews wind up offering to hire the center's clients, putting in a good word at their company for the program or referring clients to job opportunities elsewhere, she said.

“I am just going to be really honest -- there is a fear,” Heyward-West said. “There are people, employers who think we don’t want to hire those people, people with (criminal) backgrounds, people who were previously homeless. That’s a big part of what we have to overcome.”

In 1987, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the nation’s workplace discrimination watchdog agency, issued a statement that declared employer policies that disqualify any job candidates with a criminal record likely illegal. Employers are supposed to consider the age and nature of a conviction and its relevance to the job. Because a disproportionate share of African American and Latino adults have criminal records, blanket policies can effectively discriminate against groups protected by U.S. civil rights law, the commission said.

Still, the National Employment Law Project report found ample evidence of job ads that overtly exclude anyone with a criminal conviction. In a review of ads posted on Craigslist during a four-month period in five major cities, researchers found more than 300 ads in which employers stated that applicants with criminal records would not be considered. One ad for a sewer cleaning technician read, “***Do not apply with any misdemeanors/felonies.***”

“This is a major civil rights issue and a violation of the law,” NELP's Emsellem said.

There are entire industries where people with any type of criminal history –- no matter how minor or old –- will have difficulty finding work. After 9/11, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security began requiring truck drivers to undergo background checks in order to pick up or drop off loads at certain locations, such as ports. Truck drivers with a criminal record can request a waiver, but if the waiver is declined, a driver’s ability to work just about anywhere on the east or west coast is virtually destroyed, Berger of the Rutgers-Camden law clinic said. At least three or four times per semester, Berger said, his clinic hears from a truck driver who is having problems getting the necessary clearance to work at a port.

The situation defies reason, Berger said.

“You can understand how someone with an embezzlement conviction should not work in a bank or why someone with a child pornography charge should not work with kids," he said. "But you cannot understand how a drug conviction should disqualify someone from driving a truck or working as a janitor for the rest of their lives.”

A series of lawsuits filed last year against staffing companies and corporations has highlighted just how common blanket bans on hiring applicants with criminal records have become. A 2010 suit filed against First Transit, Inc. alleges that the busing company won’t hire anyone who has been convicted of a felony or served a single day in jail.

The practice isn’t limited to private employers. A class action lawsuit filed last year claims that the U.S. Census Bureau has refused to even consider applicants with criminal records for temporary Census jobs.

“Another part of the problem is the total lack of regulation on background check providers and the extremely high number of errors that pop up in their reports,” said Elizabeth Farid, deputy director of the National HIRE Network. HIRE is a New York-based nonprofit founded by the Legal Action Center, an advocacy group that opposes hiring discrimination against those with criminal records, HIV/AIDS or a history of addiction.

HIRE distributes information and advocates for policies that may expand job opportunities for people with criminal records. It also runs The Rap Sheet Workshop, in which job seekers with a criminal record are taught how to discuss their past in a frank but productive way. Participants are also shown how to identify duplications and errors and find help getting their records corrected.

Some cities, including Chicago, and states such as Michigan have implemented policies that require public agencies or private employers to stop automatically screening anyone with a criminal record out of the applicant pool.

But, there are also places like New Jersey.

Andrews called the New Jersey Office of the Attorney General after the community college backed away from his job offer. Andrews said office staff told him that they were no longer taking on criminal background check-related civil rights cases.

In an email, the New Jersey attorney general's office declined to comment on Andrew's case or its plans to pursue cases involving employers and criminal background checks.

“If I had a hard time, I don’t know what the hell some of the people who are being released form jail are supposed to do,” said Andrews, who has found an adjunct slot teaching liberal arts courses at another New Jersey community college. “People have to be able to work.”

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