Originally created 12/08/96

Employers learn of your past as background searches widen



Deputy Deverra Hart insisted there was something wrong with the random drug test - and they believed her for a while.

Richmond County Sheriff's Merit Systems Board voted to overturn her firing after she lost her job in June 1993. Board members believed Deputy Hart when she said her urine sample had been mishandled and mixed up with someone else's - someone who tested positive for THC, the active ingredient in marijuana.

After Sheriff Charles Webster vetoed the board's decision and after they heard testimony from representatives of the laboratory that conducted the test, board members changed their minds.

But the specter had been raised.

"I hear about false positive tests all the time," said Teresa Nelson, director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Atlanta. "We encourage employees to contact us about ways to make the tests less intrusive but still provide a safe work environment."

Drug testing is one of a battery of weapons that businesses use to increase workplace safety and reduce company liability, joined by criminal history checks, employment history checks and even credit checks. Once thought to be the province of public employees such as teachers and police officers, these methods are being used by more private companies.

Signed applications give the companies permission to check out the criminal, employment, educational and sometimes credit histories of prospective workers.

The trend has been driven by an increase in service-oriented businesses, such as day-care facilities, and by companies whose employees have contact with customers off company premises or outside of the presence of a supervisor, said Bob Gatewood, a professor in the Department of Management at the Universityof Georgia.

Such jobs, which offer increased contact with the public, increase the liability of a company, which can be sued for negligent hiring practices if it doesn't know the background of employees who may victimize customers, he said. The checks also protect the company itself from unscrupulous workers.

"Companies have been doing these checks for a long time - banks and financial institutions have always been interested in the background of anyone who handles money," Dr. Gatewood said. "It has a long history. But there's been so much public attention focused on the issue recently as we hear about lawsuits."

About 20 companies with 900 employees have joined the Metro Augusta Chamber of Commerce's Drugs Don't Work program since it began in May, said program Chairman Pat McGuire. A survey of area businesses shows that not all require criminal history checks, but more are moving toward it, including NutraSweet Co., which started the checks this year, and Aiken Regional Hospital.

"We feel like it's improved business, because it makes good sense," said Melissa Hege, human resources manager of NutraSweet. "It's been standard practice at Monsanto (our parent company). I think it's a smart business decision to know about who we have working here. We use the checks to look for discrepancies in what people have told us on their applications."

Applications already asked if prospective workers had been convicted of a felony, and the criminal history checks allow employers to confirm those answers, Ms. Hege said. Only felony convictions are considered, she said.

The same type of confirmation checks are done for academic and work history, she said.

The welfare of patients and the possibility of drug abuse are two concerns that prompt hospitals to check criminal histories, said Tony Welch, chief of support services at Aiken Regional. The medical center plans to start the checks soon and already requires a physical exam and a drug test.

"Obviously, there are certain types of people you wouldn't want working in this setting," Mr. Welch said. "If someone had been convicted of first-degree murder, obviously that precludes them from working in this environment. Some are also situational. A conviction does not necessarily mean they can't work here."

But civil rights supporters fear that's exactly what may happen as background checks become more widespread. Employers could be swayed in decision-making, even subconsciously, by arrests or convictions, they said. And criminal histories - kept secret when in the hands of law enforcement - do not carry the same safeguard in private hands.

"There's no control on the dissemination of that information," said Augusta lawyer Ronald Garnett. "They could tell anybody about it.

"And another thing that disturbs me - if you see those reports, sometimes they don't have a disposition. You could be arrested by mistake, but the arrest could still be on there. You could be found not guilty, and it could still be on there. It's still like a stigma on you."

Added Ms. Nelson of the ACLU: "It is a problem. People do have problems getting a job because of their criminal history."

Legally, companies may consider only convictions, not arrests, when they look at a criminal history, but equal opportunity laws may not protect convicted felons from job discrimination, Dr. Gatewood said.

"No laws I can think of name convicted persons as an identifiable group," he said. "Provisions like the Civil Rights Act give specific demographics, such as race, gender, ethnicity ... Conviction of a felony is not listed."

Jobs requiring background checks

Georgia Bureau of Investigation performs about 40,000 criminal background checks for about 800 private and public agencies a year.

Richmond County Sheriff's Department does hundreds of checks for individuals and services more than 100 businesses each year.

Some of the positions that require mandatory criminal background checks by the fingerprinting method are:

Any position where employees work with children and the elderly, including home health services employees, nursing home workers, day care providers, teachers, principals, school counselors and cafeteria workers. Others are police officers, U.S. Postal Service workers, Richmond County firefighters, security workers, people in banking, airport security workers, applicants for certain

state bar jobs(prospective lawyers), child adoption workers, adoptive and foster parents, Job Corps programs workers.

Many agencies also require credit checks, a very controversial hiring practice. For example, the Department of Justice requires credit checks for many of its employees.

"Because we are a law enforcement agency, our employees must be beyond reproach. If someone has bad credit, oftentimes it says a lot about their character. Someone who is in debt may be blackmailed for government information or use their employee expense or charge cards to pay bills. We've seen cases of this in the past and other fraud due to financial hardships," said Eula Thomas, who has headed several Department of Justice agencies that coordinate hiring and recruiting.