Wall Street Journal February 15, 2013
Perform Criminal Background Checks at Your Peril
A federal policy intended to help minorities is likely to have the opposite effect.
By JAMES BOVARD
Should it be a federal crime for businesses to refuse to hire ex-convicts? Yes, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which recently released 20,000 convoluted words of regulatory “guidance” to direct businesses to hire more felons and other ex-offenders.
In the late 1970s, the EEOC began stretching Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act to sue businesses for practically any hiring practice that adversely affected minorities. In 1989, the agency sued Carolina Freight Carrier Corp. of Hollywood, Fla., for refusing to hire as a truck driver a Hispanic man who had multiple arrests and had served 18 months in prison for larceny. The EEOC argued that the only legitimate qualification for the job was the ability to operate a tractor trailer.
U.S. District Judge Jose Alejandro Gonzalez Jr., in ruling against the agency, said: “EEOC’s position that minorities should be held to lower standards is an insult to millions of honest Hispanics. Obviously a rule refusing honest employment to convicted applicants is going to have a disparate impact upon thieves.”
The EEOC ignored that judicial thrashing and pressed on. Last April, the agency unveiled its “Enforcement Guidance on the Consideration of arrest and Conviction Records in Employment Decisions,” declaring that “criminal record exclusions have a disparate impact based on race and national origin.”
Though blacks make up only 13% of the U.S. population, more blacks were arrested nationwide for robbery, murder and manslaughter in 2009 than whites, according to the FBI. The imprisonment rate for black men “was nearly 7 times higher than White men and almost 3 times higher than Hispanic men,” notes the EEOC. These statistical disparities inspired the EEOC to rewrite the corporate hiring handbook to level the playing field between “protected groups” and the rest of the workforce.
Most businesses perform criminal background checks on job applicants, but the EEOC guidance frowns on such checks and creates new legal tripwires that could spark federal lawsuits. One EEOC commissioner who opposed the new policy, Constance Barker, warned in April that “the only real impact the new Guidance will have will be to scare business owners from ever conducting criminal background checks. . . . The Guidance tells them that they are taking a tremendous risk if they do.”
If a background check discloses a criminal offense, the EEOC expects a company to do an intricate “individualized assessment” that will somehow prove that it has a “business necessity” not to hire the ex-offender (or that his offense disqualifies him for a specific job). Former EEOC General Counsel Donald Livingston, in testimony in December to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, warned that employers could be considered guilty of “race discrimination if they choose law abiding applicants over applicants with criminal convictions” unless they conduct a comprehensive analysis of the ex-offender’s recent life history.
It is difficult to overstate the EEOC’s zealotry on this issue. The agency is demanding that one of Mr. Livingston’s clients—the Freeman Companies, a convention and corporate events planner—pay compensation to rejected job applicants who lied about their criminal records.
The biggest bombshell in the new guidelines is that businesses complying with state or local laws that require employee background checks can still be targeted for EEOC lawsuits. This is a key issue in a case the EEOC commenced in 2010 against G4S Secure Solutions after the company refused to hire a twice-convicted Pennsylvania thief as a security guard.
G4S provides guards for nuclear power plants, chemical plants, government buildings and other sensitive sites, and it is prohibited by state law from hiring people with felony convictions as security officers. But, as G4S counsel Julie Payne testified before the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights this past December, the EEOC insists “that state and local laws are pre-empted by Title VII” and is pressuring the company “to defend the use of background checks in every hiring decision we have made over a period of decades.”
The EEOC’s new regime leaves businesses in a Catch-22. As Todd McCracken of the National Small Business Association recently warned: “State and federal courts will allow potentially devastating tort lawsuits against businesses that hire felons who commit crimes at the workplace or in customers’ homes. Yet the EEOC is threatening to launch lawsuits if they do not hire those same felons.”
At the same time that the EEOC is practically rewriting the law to add “criminal offender” to the list of protected groups under civil-rights statutes, the agency refuses to disclose whether it uses criminal background checks for its own hiring. When EEOC Assistant Legal Counsel Carol Miaskoff was challenged on this point in a recent federal case in Maryland, the agency insisted that revealing its hiring policies would violate the “governmental deliberative process privilege.”
The EEOC is confident that its guidance will boost minority hiring, but studies published in the University of Chicago Legal Forum and the Journal of Law and Economics have found that businesses are much less likely to hire minority applicants when background checks are banned. As the majority of black and Hispanic job applicants have clean legal records, the new EEOC mandate may harm the very groups it purports to help.
Naturally, the EEOC will have no liability for any workplace trouble that results from its new hiring policy. But Americans can treat ex-offenders humanely without giving them legal advantages over similar individuals without criminal records. The EEOC’s new regulatory regime is likely to chill hiring across the board and decrease opportunities for minority applicants.
Mr. Bovard is the author, most recently, of a new e-book memoir, “Public Policy Hooligan.”