The link between race and crime has long been a highly charged and difficult debate rooted in factors such as discrimination and socioeconomic status. The EEOC emphasized that companies have a right to consider criminal history in hiring. Guidelines updated last year say that when evaluating job candidates, employers should weigh the nature of a crime, how long ago it occurred and its relation to the position. Offenders are generally prohibited from working in day-care facilities or prisons, for example.
But the EEOC said it is wary of the way hiring policies can disproportionately hurt minorities.
A landmark study by Princeton sociologist Devah Pager found that white offenders were only half as likely to get a callback from a potential employer and that the effect was even greater for blacks. A separate study by the Pew Center on the States found that even when offenders do land jobs, men with criminal histories earn about 40 percent less than those in similar circumstances without records.
A survey last year by the Society for Human Resource Management, an industry group, found that more than two-thirds of companies conduct criminal background checks. About a quarter of them said nonviolent misdemeanors, such as drug convictions, could influence their hiring decisions, and 60 percent reported that violent crimes could disqualify a candidate. Almost all indicated reluctance to hire someone who had been convicted of a violent felony such as murder. A majority said they allow candidates to explain their records.
In a statement Tuesday, BMW said it has “complied with the letter and spirit of the law” and touted its diverse workforce.
According to the lawsuit, the automaker banned those convicted of crimes ranging from murder to drug use to “theft, dishonesty and moral turpitude.” In 2008, when BMW switched contractors that were handling logistics at its facility in Spartanburg, S.C., it asked employees to reapply for their jobs under BMW’s criminal-background policy. The EEOC suit said 88 people were not rehired. Eighty percent of them were African American.
In its case against Dollar General, the EEOC said the low-price retailer does not adequately evaluate criminal records when hiring. The result was that 10 percent of offers made to black candidates were rescinded after a background check, compared with 7 percent of offers to whites.
In a statement, Dollar General said it seeks to foster “a safe and healthy environment” through its background checks.
But Christine Owens, executive director of the National Employment Law Project, said too many minorities are running into roadblocks.
“It’s such a tough economy that there’s a lot of concern about the barriers that people are facing to employment beyond the fact that there’s just not enough jobs,” she said.
Ryan Moragneel of Baltimore was 18 when he received a felony conviction for distributing marijuana. A few years later, he was put on probation after robbing a pawnshop with some friends. In 2011, he received a misdemeanor charge and spent several months in jail. He said employers take one look at his history and toss his application aside.
“I never really got a chance to be an adult without a record,” Moragneel said. “I’ve never been hired off a computer.”
Now 30 with two kids, Moragneel is set to graduate this month from a skills training program in Baltimore that he hopes will open the door to a job in electrical engineering. If he could talk to an employer, he said, he would say that he has learned from his mistakes and wants to move ahead.
But that can happen only if he lands an interview.
“So far,” Moragneel said, “it’s no calls back.”