Deep Background

Strict background screening leaves some poor and minority people unemployable

Lawyers representing low-income people are stepping up their argument that an increasingly strict approach to background screening for job candidates has resulted in a de facto lifetime ban on hiring many poor people.

Since low-income people are more likely than the well-to-do and professionals to have been arrested for minor crimes such as drug offenses, many poor or working-class individuals find they are essentially shut out of employment, civil-rights attorneys say. “Everybody with a record, no matter how minor or old, even non-convictions are held against them,” legal-assistance attorney Sharon Dietrich was quoted as saying by the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Dietrich, litigation and managing attorney of employment law at Philadelphia’s Community Legal Services, said that two societal trends have worsened the job prospects of poor and minority individuals: a post-9/11 security consciousness; and the digitization of personal details such as criminal records. In past decades, Dietrich said, “if you had a record, chances were that an employer [was] not going to find out about it unless you told them. Then by computerizing records and selling them to background screenings companies, or the data being more readily available, it just all exploded, and that now everybody knows what everybody’s record is.”

Dietrich said the poor are disproportionately victimized when people who are arrested give police false names or social security numbers. Over time, most innocent people whose identities were falsely given to police can clear up the confusion. The problem, she said, is that some police agencies enforce an odd policy that, if you were the victim of identity theft but you have an unrelated criminal record, then the police often refuse to fix the mistake.

“The employment law needs of poor people [are] different than the employment needs of the middle class,” Dietrich said.

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