by Karyn Pomerantz and Linda Green.
Workers for the Washington Metro Are Transit Authority (WMATA) won a class action suit in 12/17 that awarded them $6.5 million to compensate for loss of income when they were fired or not hired due to criminal background checks. While the settlement does not require rehiring affected Metro workers, it is a first step in changing policy and is an important victory against unemployment and racism. It reverses a 2011 WMATA policy that banned people with criminal records from employment if they had ever been arrested but not convicted, committed a crime that had nothing to do with their job, were framed for a crime, or had completed serving a sentence years before. Metro conducted new criminal background checks on job applicants and workers who had been off from work for over 90 days due to illness, work-related injuries, or caring for a sick family member. The company also ran checks on workers who had lost their jobs for unrelated reasons, and were re-hired later. After Metro conducted the criminal background check, they fired even the workers whom they knew had a criminal record when they had been hired and had worked for WMATA for years. Metro will now review job applicants on a case-by-case basis rather than apply a rigid anti-hiring policy to all.
Lawyers from the NAACP’s Legal and Education Defense Fund, the Washington Committee for Civil Rights, and a private law firm (Arnold and Porter) filed a class action suit against WMATA, arguing that this policy promoted racism and discrimination. Because black and Latin workers disproportionately suffer more police surveillance, arrests, incarceration, and convictions, the denial of jobs based on background checks results in an unequal, racist impact. The US National Survey on Drug Use and Health shows that white DC residents use drugs at the same rate as black residents, but the Washington Lawyers’ Committee on Civil Rights reports that African Americans comprise 8 out of 10 arrests.
Metro’s policy that bans hiring formerly incarcerated people contributes to the higher rates of unemployment and poverty of black men and women. WMATA is a large employer that provides decent wages, health insurance, and retirement benefits. With over 6,000 employees, this policy deprived hundreds of people with any criminal record of an opportunity to attain economic security and independence.
MULTIRACIAL GRASSROOTS ORGANIZING EXPOSED METRO’S RACISM
Public health workers and students from the Health Disparities Committee of the Metro Washington Public Health Association (MWPHA) began a campaign against this policy in 2012 and collaborated with the mostly black residents of Wards 7 and 8, particularly in the Stoddert Terrace neighborhood, to address social conditions that affect people’s health and well-being. Residents participated in workshops and identified imprisonment and unemployment as key problems. They were upset that those released from incarceration faced so many difficulties in job searches and housing due to background checks. Indeed, for the 7,000 workers returning to DC each year, there is urgent need for jobs and a living wage
Stories they heard included that of one bus operator who lost her house and custody of her child due to her WMATA firing, being forced to move away from her family. Others report that Metro has fired or not hired people for infractions that have nothing to do with their actual or potential job performance. Many workers successfully worked at Metro for years; another fired worker actually found a job as a bus operator at another company.
The Committee and residents mobilized members and neighbors, organized rallies at WMATA Headquarters, provided testimonies at Board hearings, forced the City Council to have a special hearing, collected 1000 names on petitions, sponsored workshops, introduced workers to legal teams, and spread the word to residents in neighborhoods most affected. They built a multiracial, grassroots group to oppose this policy while the union, ATU 689, did not openly challenge it.
FURTHER ACTION IS NEEDED
During this time, the DC City Council passed “Ban the Box” legislation that prohibits employers from asking about arrests…at the first interview but permits it at subsequent ones. Such policies are very common throughout the country. This will not matter if human resource policies look like the 2011 WMATA policy which endorsed retroactive firings. The internet has made background checks ubiquitous, so limiting questions asked at an interview may not even be relevant. There is a need to demand much stronger antiracist employment policies in many industries including hospitals, retail, schools, and construction in addition to transit.