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New step for job applicants: FBI checks

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  • Djehuti Sundaka
    http://www.csmonitor.com/2002/0201/p03s01-ussc.html New step for job applicants: FBI checks By Ron Scherer | Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor NEW
    Message 1 of 1 , Feb 2, 2002
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      http://www.csmonitor.com/2002/0201/p03s01-ussc.html

      New step for job applicants: FBI checks

      By Ron Scherer | Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

      NEW YORK - Who are you?
      In the wake of Sept. 11, an increasing number of companies - prompted in
      part by the government - are rolling out the fingerprint pads to find
      out. They are zipping the ink stains over to the FBI, calling the
      Immigration and Naturalization Service to check on legal status, and
      hiring outside screeners to make sure job résumés are accurate. The
      scramble to check history is stretching from limo drivers to airline
      pilots to chefs.

      Proponents of the new snooping say it may help root out potential
      problems by finding people with a past criminal history or fake
      citizenship papers.

      Opponents fear it will result in many people being fired for youthful
      indiscretions they have already served time for. It is an issue likely
      to find its way into the courts because real jobs - and livelihoods -
      are at stake.

      "This is probably the most security conscious we have been in the last
      60 years," says Phil Anderson of the Center for Strategic and
      International Studies in Washington.

      Nowhere is this more apparent than in the firms that specialize in
      screening potential employees for other companies. At ChoicePoint, based
      in metro Atlanta, "the phones lit up" right after Sept. 11, says Dave
      Cook, vice president in charge of sales and marketing. "People said
      we're not looking broad enough or deep enough at our employees."

      The searches are turning up some unpleasant surprises. Mr. Cook says his
      firm has identified hundreds of major thefts and murders that may not
      have been reported on employment applications.

      In the past, banks, defense contractors, and those who were required by
      law, such as schools and day-care centers, did the checks. Now, the
      universe has expanded. For example, the temp business is now checking
      for criminal violations. "Their clients are requiring it, so they are
      doing it," says Albert Bueno, president of RSI, based in Hollywood, Fla.

      Last month, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued proposed
      security guidelines that include background checks for the 11 million
      people who work in the food business. And the airline industry faced a
      deadline to fingerprint any worker with access to a secure area.

      The fingerprints will be sent to the FBI for what is called a "national
      agency check." This is the same initial screening that the military
      performs to verify criminal records and citizenship. "The FBI database
      is pretty good," says Mr. Anderson. "If you could do that for everyone,
      I think it would at least narrow the focus and reduce the risk."

      However, Gordon Adams, director of security-policy studies at George
      Washington University, calls it "probably a good idea that's run
      slightly amok." He worries that it will result in long delays in people
      getting jobs and "the longest line for [security] approval you've ever
      seen."

      The increased security is something organized labor is keeping its eye
      on, says John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO. Although he recognizes
      the need for tighter security, "We will be striving to make changes to
      whatever might be onerous on workers and on their work careers," he
      says.

      The Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) estimates that up to 1 million
      aviation employees who have access to secure areas will be
      fingerprinted, because no screeners had FBI background checks prior to
      1998 and no pilots prior to 1996. At the end of December, the Federal
      Aviation Administration (FAA) sent out a list of 28 felony convictions
      that could disqualify an airline employee - such as a pilot, mechanic,
      or ramp worker - from working in secure areas.

      John Mazor, a spokesman for ALPA, worries that some airport workers will
      be disqualified because of domestic problems with a spouse or some
      long-ago indiscretion. "There are situations where otherwise good people
      could find themselves put on that [disqualification] list," says Mr.
      Mazor.

      Bill Engle, who was an executive at 20th Century Fox, knows all about
      the effects of background checks. In 1978, he was convicted of pandering
      - that is, running an illegal massage parlor in Orange County, Calif. He
      served a jail sentence. But he didn't tell Fox that information when he
      filled out his job application.

      Mr. Engle, a former police officer, was promoted four times during his
      seven years at Fox. As chief of security, he says he discovered various
      alleged wrongdoings, including what he thought were illegal background
      searches of celebrities and employees. He put it all together in a
      notebook and brought them to his boss. "He almost jumped away and said,
      'I don't want anything to do with it,' " recalls Engle.

      Shortly thereafter, Fox fired him for not reporting that he had been
      convicted of the felony. They ended up suing each other, with Fox
      dredging up as much about his past as they could. The firing "was very
      shattering to me," says Engle, now an executive at another company. Erin
      Cooper Rotgin, the attorney for Fox who litigated the case, did not
      return phone calls.

      Privacy-rights groups worry that such background searches may result in
      many people losing their jobs for past wrongs. "My long-term worry is
      that we are creating a larger and larger number of people who are
      disenfranchised from all societal activity, but most important cannot
      get work," says Beth Givens, director of the Privacy Rights
      Clearinghouse in San Diego.

      Lawyers involved in labor law warn that employers are walking a
      tightrope. "If they react to information that is stale and unrelated to
      a job, they do so at their own peril," says Gerald Skoning, a lawyer
      with Seyfarth Shaw in Chicago. "If you don't hire as a result of a
      background check, you may be sued for invasion of privacy, or wrongful
      discharge."

      But Mr. Skoning says firms also have to weigh the risk of not acting on
      an employee's past. "If there is a dangerous situation, such as a
      nuclear accident, the victims could sue the company for negligent
      retention."

      The restaurant industry, meanwhile, says it doesn't really think the FDA
      intends it to comply with the guidelines. "Even those who wrote those
      guidelines don't have FBI background checks," says Steve Grover, of the
      National Restaurant Association in Washington. "We are going to make
      sure that everything is secure, but some of those recommendations do go
      a bit far."

      Paul Bresson, a spokesman for the FBI, says that doing criminal checks
      on everyone involved in the food business would strain his agency's
      resources.

      In fact, Mr. Bresson says the FBI can't do criminal checks on an
      individual unless there is some kind of law mandating them. "If a law
      passes, he says, "of course we will."
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