D.C. Area Transit Agency Tightens Hiring Rules

By James Hohmann
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 20, 2009; B03

Metro has put in place stricter hiring standards for all job applicants after a series of embarrassing incidents this year, the transit agency announced Wednesday.

Under the old policy, a would-be bus driver was disqualified by two felony convictions within three years of applying or by three felony convictions within 10 years. Now, a single felony conviction in the previous 10 years would prevent someone from getting a frontline job, such as bus driver or train operator.

Misdemeanor convictions have long been reviewed on a case-by-case basis, and drug-related convictions did not disqualify applicants who could show they had been clean for at least a year. Now, two or more misdemeanor convictions for drug possession or crimes "against person, property or society" during the previous 10 years make someone ineligible.

People convicted of driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol will have to wait three years to apply for work at Metro. Also excluded now is anyone with a criminal conviction for sexual assault or a crime of violence.

The rules, which went into effect Aug. 3, prevented Metro from hiring some applicants who might have been eligible before the rule changes, according to Metro spokeswoman Angela Gates. She declined to say how many had been thwarted or what violations prevented them from getting jobs at an agency long known for its willingness to give convicts a second chance.

"It's been a while since these standards have last been updated," Gates said. "It's part of a comprehensive review we're doing of hiring and disciplinary procedures."

Despite good benefits relative to the skills and education required, filling bus driver jobs has been a struggle for the agency.

Agency officials said in March that tighter hiring standards might be in place by May after an off-duty bus driver was fatally shot by an off-duty D.C. police officer during an apparent robbery attempt. Jelani K. Slay, 34, of Clinton was wearing a mask and brandishing a gun when he tried to rob the officer, authorities said. He was hired as a bus driver in March 2007, two months after his release from prison, where he served an 11-year sentence for robbing two men at gunpoint.

In a separate incident that spurred Metro's promise to reconsider hiring policies, bus driver Shawn Brim, 36, was accused of punching an off-duty police officer dressed as McGruff the Crime Dog in February. He was subsequently fired.

Under the new rules, would-be bus operators still need to pass commercial driving tests and complete a two-month training program before starting. They will continue to be disqualified for having a license revoked or suspended for moving violations within three years of applying or for acquiring more than two points against a driver's license within three years.

Other applicants, including those for jobs that involve oversight of safety or money, will be disqualified for a felony conviction within the previous five years, Metro said.

Slay, the Metro employee who allegedly tried to rob the off-duty police officer, was not disqualified because his felony conviction came more than a decade before he applied for a job as a bus driver. It didn't matter that he had spent those years in prison.

That gap in the rules is not addressed by the new policies, Gates acknowledged, because the 10-year countdown still begins on the day of conviction.

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