D.C. Council member Bowser attacks Metro policy on hiring people with criminal records

Robert Thomson
Columnist February 22

You don’t need a degree in political science to ride the D.C. region’s transit system, but if you have a complaint about the service, the degree might help in understanding the complicated way Metro is governed.

Case in point: Muriel Bowser is a member of the Metro Board of Directors. She also is a D.C. Council member and candidate for mayor. Those three roles overlapped and diverged on Wednesday when Bowser, as chair of the Council’s Economic Development Committee, held a hearing on Metro’s hiring practices.

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. View Archive

Bowser is sponsoring a council resolution that would call on Metro to make its employment policy more flexible for people with criminal backgrounds. Bowser said that Metro 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.

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

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.


Mayoral candidate Muriel E. Bowser (D) participates in a forum and straw poll earlier this month in Ward 4. (Astrid Riecken/The Washington Post)

Bowser does not contend that Metro has no responsibility to consider a potential employee’s criminal background. Rather, she and her witnesses said the current policy can deny employment without increasing public safety and the security of the transit system.

But this is tricky ground for a mayoral candidate and for a person who has a leading role in setting policy for a regional transit agency.

As a D.C. Council member, Bowser has a legitimate interest in enhancing opportunities for D.C. residents with a big, secure, well-paying employer such as Metro. One of the themes of her mayoral campaign is economic fairness.

There’s nothing odd about viewing public employment as an opportunity to advance people up the economic ladder. In fact, Bowser made some of her best points when questioning officials from the D.C. Department of Employment Services.

F. Thomas Luparello, the interim director of D.C. employment services, said the administration of Mayor Vincent C. Gray “supports the sentiment expressed in [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 just six weeks. But if 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 you knew she was going to highlight?

Instead, Bowser was able to characterize the D.C. government’s efforts to get residents hired by Metro as “abysmal,” and this during a period when Metro did extensive hiring to prepare for the opening of the Silver Line.

Still, when it came to the specific issue of criminal background checks, Bowser didn’t always look like a political winner.

Metro General Manager Richard Sarles, a witness at her hearing, said all he needed to say in defense of transit authority hiring policy: “Metro is essentially the District’s school bus service. Parents put their trust in us.”

And the transit agency’s MetroAccess service transports some of the city’s most vulnerable people, including those with physical and mental disabilities.

Metro officials say there’s a lot of misunderstanding about the background-check policy. Violent offenses, including murder, rape, sexual assault, kidnapping and child abuse, are absolute bars to employment, Sarles said. But previous convictions for nonviolent 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; failing to do so will lead to rejection. But the transit authority considers the nature of the nonviolent offense, how long ago it occurred and whether it was repeated. The transit authority also considers whether a job requires interaction with the public. Such 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, have been on extended leave or are transferring into jobs that have financial responsibilities.

The D.C. Council shouldn’t be telling Metro what to do when it comes to hiring people with criminal records, especially not without a better understanding of what the policy actually is and what role it plays in protecting Metro’s customers.

Dr. Gridlock also appears Thursday in Local Living. Comments and questions are welcome and may be used in a column, along with the writer’s name and home community. Write Dr. Gridlock at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or e-mail drgridlock@washpost.com .

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