The following piece by Maurice Emsellem of the National Employment Law Project was originally published on the Huffington Post.
Uber’s ruthless expansion strategy has put state and local legislators in the middle of the debate over regulation of the on-demand, ride-hailing workforce. Laws requiring background checks for drivers, which can restrict access to Uber’s core asset, are now a central theme of the regulatory battle, focusing specifically on the use of state and federal criminal history databases that require fingerprinting of ride-hailing drivers.
Indeed, Uber and Lyft recently chose to abandon the Austin, Texas market rather than comply with local laws requiring taxi drivers to undergo fingerprint-based background checks (56 percent of Austin voters rejected an initiative to exempt on-demand companies from the city’s law). And in New Jersey and Chicago, where similar measures are now being actively debated, Uber retained former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to lobby against the bills by challenging the accuracy and fairness of fingerprint-based FBI background checks (which is an issue that NELP has championed as an advocate of bi-partisan federal reform legislation).
To help inform the debate, it’s important to first clarify that “fingerprinting” is a shorthand term referring to background checks that require an individual’s fingerprint (usually captured by means of “livescan” technology) to access either a state criminal history repository or the FBI database, which collects data from the state and local systems. In contrast to name-based checks conducted by commercial background check companies, fingerprint-based checks are less vulnerable to misidentification. In addition, private employers typically cannot access the databases requiring fingerprinting of the workers unless authorized by a federal, state, or local occupational licensing law, like the ride-hailing laws regulating taxi drivers. Instead, with varying degrees of accuracy, the commercial background check companies collect criminal history data from the local courts, the states, and “aggregators” of criminal history data.
In an article published this week by the Shriver Center, Preventing Background Screeners from Reporting Expunged Criminal Cases, Sharon Dietrich offers helpful advice for advocates on to how to combat the problem posed by the reporting of expunged and sealed criminal records by private commercial background screening services. Her advice is based partly on her own organization’s participation in litigation under the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act (“FCRA”) against one of the country’s larger background screeners — an experience that she recounts in detail.
Dietrich identifies the problem of improper private reporting of expunged records as one that “threatens to undermine the whole strategy of broadening expungement as a remedy for the harm of collateral consequences.” She describes the underlying issue as follows:
[T]he commercial background-screening industry, which runs the lion’s share of the background checks obtained by employers and landlords, sometimes reports those expunged cases long after they have been removed from the public record. Companies in the background-screening industry typically maintain their own privately held databases of criminal cases from which they generate background checks. When updating their data from public sources (often state courts), these screeners often do not use methods to determine whether cases that were reported by their sources have been removed (i.e., expunged or sealed), and they continue to report them.
Twenty years ago, criminal record background checks for employment were rare. Today, the easy accessibility of criminal records on the Internet, and the post-September 11th culture of heightened scrutiny, have contributed to a sharp increase in background checks of job candidates. If you’re applying for jobs in most industries, expect employers to ask about a criminal record at some point in the hiring process—and expect many of them to run a background check on you.
It’s a harsh reality for an estimated one in four U.S. adults who have some type of criminal record. Unfortunately, any involvement with the criminal justice system—even having minor or old offenses—could become a job obstacle for these 70 million Americans. Even if you’ve avoided a run-in with the law, you could still find yourself being unfairly screened out for a job due to an erroneous background check report. With thousands of private background check companies across the country that have varying levels of reliable information, inaccuracies in these reports are far too common.
Unknown to many job candidates, private background check companies and the employers relying on their reports are regulated by a federal consumer protection law called the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA). Although more well-known in the credit report context, FCRA also applies to companies that produce criminal background check information, and gives job-seekers a number of protections.