Bowser attacks Metro policy on criminal background checks

D.C. Council member, mayoral candidate and Metro board member Muriel Bowser held a Council committee hearing Wednesday on Metro’s policy on criminal background checks for employment.

Muriel Bowser speaks at a candidates' forum. (Michael Williamson/The Washington Post)
Muriel Bowser speaks at a candidates’ forum. (Michael Williamson/The Washington Post)

Bowser is sponsoring a council resolution that would call on Metro to make its policy on background checks more flexible. Bowser said that policy revisions in 2011 resulted in a “far more strict and punitive process” that can bar employment for “relatively minor” felony convictions that may have occurred long ago.

She said she had heard in particular from former drivers for the MetroAccess paratransit service who were terminated because of criminal background checks done when they sought re-employment by the new MetroAccess contractor.

Bowser urged the transit authority to “revise its overly restrictive policy” and take a broader view than she believed was now the case, so that more applicants who may have criminal backgrounds can get through the hiring process.

Michael Golash, a former president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689, which represents many Metro employees, called the background check policy “totally unfair and unreasonable.” He told Bowser during the hearing that there is “no research to show that people with criminal backgrounds behave differently.”

Ria Mar of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, which is representing several people it believes were unfairly denied jobs by Metro, told Bowser that the transit policy is “unnecessarily punitive.” In some cases she said, the offense was several decades in the past, or not job related.

Neither Bowser nor the witnesses at her hearing denied that Metro has a right to do criminal background checks. Their argument is that the current policy can deny employment without increasing public safety and the security of the transit system.

This is tricky ground for a mayoral candidate.

Bowser’s call for a more flexible policy on the background checks is only one aspect of her overall effort to increase employment opportunities for D.C. residents at Metro. This is an excellent theme, and there’s nothing odd about viewing public employment as an opportunity to advance people up the economic ladder. In fact, Bowser scored some of her best points when questioning officials from the D.C. Department of Employment Services, which should see employment with the transit authority as one of the great opportunities for its clients.

One of the witnesses at Bowser’s hearing in the Wilson Building was F. Thomas Luparello, interim director of the DC Employment Services. He said the administration of Mayor Vincent C. Gray “supports the sentiment expressed in this [Bowser's] resolution and supports the hiring of returning citizens” released from prison. That’s about 8,000 people a year in D.C., and many are unemployed upon their release, he noted.

But Luparello then proved unable to discuss with Bowser exactly what his department was doing to maintain a strong relationship with Metro on hiring issues. Granted, he’s been in his job only six weeks. But if you knew you were going to testify before the woman who’s trying to take away your boss’s job, wouldn’t you have prepared some talking points on the topic she was going to highlight?

Instead, Bowser was able to characterize the effort at getting D.C. residents hired by Metro as “abysmal” during a period when Metro did extensive hiring to prepare for the start of the Silver Line service.

Still, she didn’t always look like a political winner on the background check issue.

Richard Sarles
Metro General Manager Richard Sarles. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

Metro General Manager Richard Sarles was far from being a hostile witness when he testified. But he certainly said all he had to say in defense of transit authority policy on criminal checks: “Metro is essentially the District’s school bus service. Parents put their trust in us.”

In addition, the MetroAccess service is responsible for transporting some of the city’s most vulnerable people, including those with physical and mental disabilities.

Sarles went on to describe details of the background check policy, which he said was developed to ensure the policy was “concise, transparent and could be consistently applied.”

Some offenses, including murder, rape, sexual assault, kidnapping, child pornography or child abuse are absolute disqualifiers from Metro employment, Sarles said. But previous convictions for non-violent offenses that include burglary or drug use might not in themselves bar a person from employment.

A job candidate must disclose any criminal history, he said, and failing to do so will lead to rejection. But the transit authority considers the nature of the non-violent offense, how long ago it occurred, and whether it was repeated. The transit authority also considers whether the job applied for requires the employee to interact with the public. Those jobs would include station manager, bus driver or train operator, among many others.

The policy adopted in 2011 does not affect current employees unless they are terminated and seek to be rehired or who have been on extended leave, or are transferring into jobs that have financial responsibilities.

Bowser is not an outspoken participant during Metro board discussions of customer service issues. But she did raise many service questions during the second part of her council hearing Wednesday. Those will be the subject of another posting.

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post’s “Dr. Gridlock.” He answers travelers’ questions, listens to their complaints and shares their pain on the roads, trains and buses in the Washington region.
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Robert Thomson · February 19