BMW Sued For Racial Discrimination In South Carolina

June 12, 2013

Summer is here, and across America, the mercury is climbing. But in Spartanburg, South Carolina, things are a little hotter than usual: yesterday, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed a lawsuit against BMW, claiming that the automaker discriminated against African American workers there. 

As with most lawsuits, this one is a little messy, but this gist is this:

BMW contracted with a company called UTi for some of its Spartanburg workforce. UTi provided logistics services, which, according to a press release from the EEOC, "included warehouse and distribution assistance, transportation services and manufacturing support".

Like many companies, both BMW and UTi conduct background checks on potential employees. However, UTi looks only at an applicant's record over the last seven years, and it takes into account the nature and severity of any conviction found. So, while murder or kidnapping might be a very big red flag, petty theft or a minor drug conviction might not. 

BMW is not so forgiving. "BMW's policy has no time limit with regard to convictions. The policy is a blanket exclusion without any individualized assessment of the nature and gravity of the crimes, the ages of the convictions, or the nature of the claimants' respective positions."

Still with us?

When UTi sent workers to BMW's plant in Spartanburg, it screened those workers according to its own policy. But UTi's contract with BMW expired in 2008, and employees were told that they'd have to reapply with the new logistics firm if they wanted to keep working at the plant. That new logistics firm reviewed applicants using BMW's stricter screening process. 

In doing so, many people were not rehired, including quite a few who'd worked at the facility for years.

Now, the EEOC doesn't have a problem with employers screening for previous convictions. That's all well and good.

The problem is that BMW's particular hiring policy -- and that of its new logistics contractor -- raise the specter of racial discrimination because blacks and Latinos face statistically higher rates of conviction and incarceration. EEOC Chair Jacqueline A. Berrien explains it like this: 

"Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination against job applicants and employees on account of their race.... Since issuing its first written policy guidance in the 1980s regarding the use of arrest and conviction records in employment decisions, the EEOC has advised employers that under certain circumstances, their use of that information to deny employment opportunities could be at odds with Title VII."

In other words, if BMW's new contractor had taken a more nuanced approach to background checks -- one like UTi's that took into account the nature of prior convictions -- the automaker might not be in this mess.

In a statement, BMW said it would fight the EEOC lawsuit, insisting that it has a "strong culture of non-discrimination". We'll keep you posted. 

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