Metro union workers protest

September 12, 2013

Members of Local 689 protest outside of Metro headquarters about what they call unfair policies in the transit agency’s hiring process. (Dana Hedgpeth/The Washington Post)

Members of Metro’s largest union — Local 689 — said they believe the transit agency’s practices of doing background checks on its new hires and employees is unfair and discriminatory.

About three dozen people — some in their Metro uniforms — protested Thursday outside of Metro’s headquarters near Judiciary Square stop as the agency’s board of directors held several meetings inside. Some of the Local 689 members also addressed the board during its public input session at its monthly board meeting.

The union members said they do not support Metro’s policy in which  it conducts a background check of an employee when they return from an extended leave of absence. They argue that many of their members have unfairly lost their jobs because of this practice. Some also said they believe people trying to get jobs with Metro who have criminal convictions in their past have been unfairly treated or not hired based on their past.

Some of those protesting held posters that read, “Metro workers lead the way. Ban criminal checks today.”

Another sign read, “Doing time is not a crime.”

Some leaders of the union said they feel Metro’s policy unfairly treats African Americans who they said tend to have higher rates of criminal histories.

Ishmael Clark of Takoma Park, who was involved in the protest and is a former Metro bus driver, said he believes he was treated unfairly under Metro’s background screening policy.

He started with Metro in 2007 as a bus driver but said he was fired in 2010 because of allegations of workplace violence against a female he worked with at the agency.

Clark said that when he was in the process of trying to be reinstated to work for Metro in 2012, Metro did a criminal background check on him. A 2003 felony conviction showed up, and he said Metro used that against him in not reinstating him in his job.

“They knew about that conviction when they hired me,” Clark said, noting that he disclosed it as is required when someone is hired at Metro. “Then they see it in doing a background check on me when I’m trying to get my job back and won’t let me back in over it.”

“It’s very unfair,” he said. “I had to leave and start all over again.”

For the last year, he said, he has been working as a bus driver for RideOn, the bus service in Montgomery County.

Metro spokesman Dan Stessel would not comment on Clark’s case, saying “we don’t discuss individual personnel matters.”

Metro said it does background screenings before a person is offered a final job and it does one of an employee who has been out of the agency for 90 days or more before that person is authorized to come back to Metro. It can also do screenings, its policy states, if it has “reasonable suspicion.”

Metro General Manager Richard Sarles said Thursday that the agency updated its standards in December 2011 because it “wanted standards that were consistent and clear” in terms of its hiring and retaining employees who have a criminal past.

“We wanted a uniform standard that was fair to applicants and to customers,” Sarles said in explaining why the policy was changed.

Depending on the crime, there are some jobs that can lead to a person’s “permanent disqualification” from a position, according to its policy for background screenings. There are other offenses such as driving under the influence where an employee can still work for Metro, depending on whether they were convicted of a felony or a misdemeanor and depending on when the applicant was convicted of a crime or released from jail, the policy states.

“You can commit fraud but still be eligible to work here, but we’re not going to hire you to handle cash,” Sarles said. “Trespassing is not going to impact your eligibility to work here.”

One Metro union leader said his group had recently meet with officials from the transit agency to discuss the policy but he would not elaborate on the nature of the meetings.

I'm a Washington Post reporter, working an early morning shift that deals with crime, lottery winners, traffic, you name it.
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Mark Berman · September 12, 2013