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In a potential class-action lawsuit filed July 30, 2014, nine black men alleged that the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) denied them employment for irrelevant criminal offenses in their past, in violation of their civil rights.
The lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on behalf of themselves and other similarly situated black employees and job seekers alleges that the transit agency’s screening policy disproportionately impacts black workers.
The plaintiffs argue that because blacks in the Washington, D.C., area are more likely to have criminal convictions than workers in other racial groups, WMATA’s current policy has a disparate racial impact. “The policy disqualifies many job applicants and employees based on criminal history that is not related to the job at issue or occurred so long ago—in some cases, 20 or 30 years in the past—that it is irrelevant to any fair determination of employee honesty, reliability or safety,” according to the complaint.
Most of the plaintiffs have been convicted of nonviolent criminal drug felonies, but some have also been found guilty of assault and robbery, according to the complaint.
The suit names contractors Diamond Transportation, Executive Personnel Services and First Transit as co-defendants.
WMATA’s criminal screening standard, implemented in December 2011, disqualifies applicants for a single misdemeanor conviction in the prior five years or a felony conviction in the prior 10 years for property crimes; permanently disqualifies all individuals with a felony conviction for drug dealing and possession of a weapon used during a crime; and permanently disqualifies applicants for felonies involving violence from any positions interacting with the public.
Lead plaintiff Erick Little, 47, was offered a job as a bus driver contingent on his passing a criminal background check. He disclosed a conviction for drug possession when he was 19 and three additional misdemeanors during an interview with WMATA, according to the complaint. Little said his offer was rescinded after he underwent the background check.
WMATA General Manager Richard Sarles told city officials earlier this year that the agency has not fired anyone because of a criminal conviction that occurred prior to employment. “We believe in, and the policy provides for, second chances,” Sarles told the Council of the District of Columbia in February. “The policy is clear and transparent and does not come with the uncertainty of a case-by-case approach,” he said, referring to a previous WMATA policy. According to the lawsuit, under the previous policy misdemeanor convictions were considered individually and applicants for employment were excluded only if they had direct contact with the public and two felony convictions within three years or three felony convictions within 10 years. “The existence of a criminal history is not an absolute bar from employment at WMATA,” Sarles said. “Instead, our policy recognizes that public-facing customer service jobs should have a higher level of scrutiny and come with more stringent requirements than our internal nonpublic positions.” He also told the council that any disqualified candidates have the opportunity to submit an appeal with supporting documents for review.
On July 14, 2014, the council unanimously approved a “ban-the-box” bill prohibiting private employers from inquiring about an applicant’s criminal conviction record until the employer has extended a conditional job offer. Mayor Vincent Gray is expected to sign the legislation into law, but it must also pass congressional review. The district enacted a ban-the-box law in 2011 for public hiring.
Roy Maurer is an online editor/manager for SHRM.
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