Applicants with criminal records challenge census job-screening practices

By Carol Morello
Wednesday, April 14, 2010; B03

Two job applicants with minor criminal records have gone to court to challenge the way the Census Bureau screens applicants for work as census takers.

In a class action suit filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in New York, Eugene Johnson, 48, of the Bronx, N.Y., and Evelyn Houser, 69, of Philadelphia say they were unfairly rejected for census jobs this year because they could not provide court records of their cases settled decades earlier.

Johnson and Houser say they are among thousands who were not hired because records are no longer available for misdemeanor offenses committed long ago. The two, who are African Americans, say the Census Bureau's screening practices amount to discrimination against blacks, Latinos and Native Americans, who have higher arrest rates that remain on their records even if there was no prosecution or conviction.

The Commerce Department, which oversees the Census Bureau, declined to comment on a pending lawsuit, but spokesman Nick Kimball cited safety as a reason for rules about hiring job candidates with criminal histories.

"Americans must be confident that if they don't mail back their forms and a census taker must come to their door, we've taken steps to ensure their safety," he said.

Johnson, who has done field survey work for pollsters and market researchers, was arrested on misdemeanor assault charges in 1995 stemming from a dispute with his landlord over rent. He was sentenced to perform community service and pay restitution.

Houser, a retired housekeeper and home health aide, has a 1981 case for theft and forgery involving a check that she found near a dumpster and cashed. She was placed in a diversionary program and was not formally convicted. She was hired as a census taker in 1990.

This year, when the Census Bureau is expected to hire more than 700,000 temporary census takers, FBI fingerprint checks have been run for the first time on all applicants. Serious felonies automatically disqualify applicants, but people convicted of less severe transgressions can be hired. Census Director Robert M. Groves has been vague about which crimes could keep a job candidate in contention. Hundreds of job seekers with criminal records have shown up at job fairs in Washington to take the test given to all applicants.

Samuel R. Miller, one of the plaintiffs' attorneys, said the FBI database collects arrest records from states but has a notorious backlog in keeping track of dispositions.

"They are no less qualified, and they are of no greater risk than the average person who is getting hired who doesn't have a record in the FBI database," he said of his clients. "You can't stigmatize people with arrest records who are not convicted."

Miller said the Census Bureau should not expect job applicants to produce court documentation, because some of it has been sealed, lost or even destroyed if alternatives to jail were imposed. He also said people convicted of misdemeanors such as loitering or disturbing the peace should be given equal consideration for jobs as applicants with no records.

The plaintiffs' attorneys -- a New York firm specializing in employment law and seven public interest organizations -- are seeking other rejected job applicants to join the class action suit.

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