Election aftermath: The road ahead

Election aftermath: The road ahead

photo-1445365813209-5ab6d8f397cbWhen I was in law school, a white male student ran for a position in our student body government. In his campaign statement, he said that if elected, he would eliminate funding for the school’s minority organizations and use the money to “blow lines” off the taut stomachs of Southeast Asian boys. At a town hall meeting, this man still did not seem apologetic and told us to lighten up, that it had just been a joke. Many minority students, including yours truly, were outraged. When people ask why I became a civil rights lawyer and involved in progressive causes, I cite that incident as one of several defining moments. Because it was heartbreaking that someone in San Francisco these days would still think that racist jokes were acceptable, and that some people didn’t think it was a big deal.

The election results brought new heartbreak. Whatever theories emerge about the outcome, one thing remains clear – there is still so much to be done to protect our civil rights. If you think we are safe from racism, sexism, homophobia, and xenophobia in this country, think again. If you think that the laws we have in place offer enough protection to prevent unfair treatment, think again. If you think that there are too many complaints about discrimination and harassment, think again.

Our state’s public policy is clear:

“It is hereby declared as the public policy of this state that it is necessary to protect and safeguard the right and opportunity of all persons to seek, obtain, and hold employment without discrimination or abridgment on account of race, religious creed, color, national origin, ancestry, physical disability, mental disability, medical condition, genetic information, marital status, sex, gender, gender identity, gender expression, age, sexual orientation, or military and veteran status.

It is recognized that the practice of denying employment opportunity and discriminating in the terms of employment for these reasons foments domestic strife and unrest, deprives the state of the fullest utilization of its capacities for development and advancement, and substantially and adversely affects the interests of employees, employers, and the public in general.”

Discrimination in any form adversely affects us all. It’s not a joke, and it’s definitely a big deal. People who come to my office are not litigious by nature – they have suffered real harm and mistreatment in the workplace simply because of who they are. Because their skin is not white. Because they are women. Because they were not born in this country and speak imperfect English. Because of who they pray to. Because they are perceived as too old or too disabled to work. Because they love their same-sex partner. Because of these and other immutable qualities that are supposed to be embraced and protected under our laws and under human decency.

If you think we’ve progressed to be more inclusive, look harder at what this nation has revealed about itself. And look harder at the work that needs to be done. Now more than ever, we need to continue seeking justice, fair treatment, and equal opportunities for all.

Lisa Mak

About Lisa Mak

Lisa Mak is an associate attorney in the Consumer & Employee Rights Group at Minami Tamaki LLP in San Francisco. She is passionate about representing employees and consumers on an individual and class basis to protect their rights. Her practice includes cases involving employment discrimination, harassment, retaliation, wrongful termination, labor violations, and severance negotiations. Ms. Mak is the Co-Chair of the CELA Diversity Committee, Co-Chair of the Asian American Bar Association’s Community Services Committee, and an active volunteer at the Asian Law Caucus Workers’ Rights Clinic. Ms. Mak is a graduate of UC Hastings School of Law and UC San Diego. She is fluent in Cantonese and conversant in French.

We’ve Finally Reached 2016 African American Women’s Equal Pay Day

We've Finally Reached 2016 African American Women’s Equal Pay Day

Harriet Tubman portrait

Today we commemorate “African American Women’s Equal Pay Day,” the day in the year when African American women’s wages finally catch up to what men earned last year.  It is important to note that African American Women’s Equal Pay Day comes nearly four months after “Women’s Equal Pay Day,” which included wages of women of all races, and was marked on April 12th of this year.  The four-month lag signifies the nearly 20-cent wider wage gap African American women face when compared to women of all races.  So, while the average wage gap for all women in the United States is 79 cents for every dollar a man makes, African American women’s wages are at just 60.5 cents on the dollar.  African American lesbian couples, who doubly experience the high wage gap (plus discrimination based on sexual orientation), have triple the poverty rate of white lesbian couples.

Eliminating the racial gender wage gap would provide concrete economic benefits to African American women.  To give a concrete example, women could buy nearly three years of food for their families or pay rent for nearly two years with those additional wages.  Given that so many African American women and their families are struggling to make ends meet, receiving equal pay would make a life-changing difference.

Last year, California passed one of the strongest equal pay laws in the country, the California Fair Pay Act of 2015, which strengthened protection for workers who discuss or ask about their wages and the wages of others.  It also protects women who challenge gender based pay differences in jobs that are “substantially similar” to theirs.  For example, a female housekeeper who is being paid less than a male janitor could remedy the pay difference since the jobs are so similar and wage inequality would likely be unjustified.  The California Labor Commissioner is charged with enforcing the California Fair Pay Act.

This year, California State Senator Hall has introduced SB 1063, the Wage Equality Act of 2016, which would add race and ethnicity to California’s strong Fair Pay Act.  Under SB 1063, California employers would be prohibited from paying workers less for substantially similar work based on race or ethnicity.  An African American woman thus might have a claim that she is being paid less based not only on sex, but on race as well.  With SB 1063, she would be able to more effectively address racial wage inequality.

Certain cities already are specifically addressing wage inequality by sex, race and ethnicity.  For example, in San Francisco, city contractors will have to disclose data on what they pay their workers, broken down by both sex and race, to the City.  California state contractors may also be required to submit similar pay data reports under another bill that should reach the governor’s desk for approval.  And the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission intends to revise its Employer Information Report (EEO-1) data collection to include salary information based on ethnicity, race, and sex.

Our current laws against sex and race discrimination have proven inadequate to end race- and sex-based unequal pay since the pay gap remains depressingly large more than fifty years after passage of federal civil rights laws in these areas. Pay disclosure rules are an important step towards closing the pay gap for women and women of color in particular. They force employers to self-audit and identify unjustified pay disparities.  In the event they do not correct the disparities, disclosure enable government agencies to conduct targeted enforcement of equal pay laws.

It will reportedly be more than a decade before the first African American woman (Harriet Tubman) graces the face of U.S. currency.  With these new laws there is hope that before the Tubmans arrive, African American women will already be receiving the full value of those $20 bills and not just 60 percent.

The Legal Aid Society-Employment Law Center together with the California Women’s Law Center and Equal Rights Advocates make up the California Fair Pay Collaborative dedicated to engaging and informing Californians about fair pay issues.

 

 

 

Elizabeth Kristen

About Elizabeth Kristen

Elizabeth Kristen is the Director of the Gender Equity & LGBT Rights Program and a senior staff attorney at Legal Aid at Work.  Ms. Kristen began her public interest career as a Skadden Fellow at Legal Aid.  Ms. Kristen graduated from University of California at Berkeley School of Law in 2001 and served as a law clerk to the Honorable James R. Browning on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco.  In 2012-13, she served as a Harvard law School Wasserstein Public Interest Fellow.  She has been a lecturer at Berkeley Law School since 2008. Legal Aid at Work together with the California Women’s Law Center and Equal Rights Advocates make up the California Fair Pay Collaborative dedicated to engaging and informing Californians about fair pay issues.

The March for Jobs and Freedom continues: A daughter walks in her mother’s footsteps

The March for Jobs and Freedom continues: A daughter walks in her mother's footsteps

By Tiren Angela Steinbach

march

My mother grew up in a middle class African American family in Hyde Park, Chicago.  She graduated from high school in 1963 and was enrolled in Skidmore College for the fall. As a girl, she was a dancer, so she convinced her parents to send her to dance school in Paris the summer before she started college.  Paris in the early 60s was the mecca of cool, the epicenter for Black intellectuals and artists who had left the United States to find greater acceptance in the City of Lights.  So, in the summer of ‘63, eighteen years old, my mom flew off alone to Paris, which was horribly romantic in theory but rather lonely in reality. This was particularly true if your French was less that exemplary, which was, unfortunately true for my mother.

My mother was alone and desperate for her mother tongue, so she read the International Herald Tribune every day cover to cover. One day, there was a notice on the back pages: “Interested in Civil Rights?  Want to talk with other folks about the March on Washington? Come to Café Blah de blah blah at 4 p.m.” It was signed J.B.  My mother circled the notice and went to Café Blah de blah at 4 o’clock.  The café was overflowing with dozens of American ex pats, many African American, all sitting around drinking café lattes and discussing the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom that was planned for the following week.  The small café was filled with a cacophony of American-accented voices speaking at once, asking, “What was it all about?”  “What should we do?” “What does this all mean for Negros – is this really going to make a difference?”  Finally the host of the meeting, J.B. – James Baldwin – stood up and said simply, “It’s time to go home.  Our people need us.”

My mom went home.  She changed her ticket and flew back to Chicago the day before the march.  But when she got there, her parents’ house was empty. She went to her aunt’s place next door – empty. It was like the whole of Hyde Park was empty, all gone to Washington DC to take part in history. No one had been expecting her so there was no message, no instructions, nothing.  Finally she found a scrap of paper written in her twin sister’s handwriting that had a name and number. She called it and a man on the other end said that the last chartered train to DC was leaving in two hours and she better get to the station if she wanted to get on board. So she did.

podiumShe arrived in DC with hundreds of thousands of people there to march to support civil rights. My mother was swept out of the train station into the crowd flowing like a human river towards the Lincoln Memorial.  There, a queue of speakers took the stage to address the crowd, among them Martin Luther King Jr., who delivered a thoughtful speech about the emancipation proclamation and the national legacy of racism.  Some say that it was gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, who was standing nearby on the stage, who called out, “tell them about your dream, Martin!” And my mom stood in a crowd of over 200,000 listening to the speech that would later be recognized as a transforming moment of the Civil Rights Movement.  That day, my mom never found her mother or father or her twin sister or aunts, uncles, cousins, grandfather, and neighbors, but she knew that they were there with her somewhere in the crowd.  And she knew that her world had changed forever.

My mother started college several weeks later.  She joined SNCC – the Student Non-violence Coordinating Committee She joined SDS – Students for a Democratic Society.  She joined the MOVEMENT…and never looked back.  A couple years later, in 1965, while organizing for another march on Washington to oppose the Vietnam War, my mom got a call from a graduate student at Rochester, saying that he had three busloads of people for the march but needed to connect to an organization to get them to DC. My mother told the grad student to come to a planning meeting in New York City, and he did. That man was my father. And the rest, as they say, is history.

I share this story as a call to us all, J.B.’s call that my mother answered, “to go home, our people need us.”  And home is not only our home, but the streets and jails and prisons and homeless shelters and veterans homes and community centers and clinics and legal aids and public defender offices and all places we are needed to advocate for justice. And our people are all people whose voices are silenced and stories vilified and humanity stolen – all people for whom the law has been wielded as a weapon against them rather than a tool for their equality.  And on this journey for justice, we will sometimes feel alone and scared and far from comfort, but our spirits will be buoyed by the many others who have also answered the call, and comforted by knowledge that we are part of global movement – people raising hands up and voices loud and putting lives at risk for justice.  And we will need to be lifted by words and wisdom of those who preach proudly to the choir because they know the power of their sermons is what inspires the choir to sing our loud and proud and powerfully for justice – justice that looks like love in public. And we must answer this call and never look back because today, more than ever, our people need us.

Tirien Angela Steinbach is the executive director of the East Bay Community Law Center, the community-based clinic for Berkeley Law School, where she graduated from law school in 1999. This post was written from her life experiences in hopes of inspiring a call to justice.  It originally appeared on the EBCLC blog under the title “J.B.’s Call and the March for Jobs and Freedom.”

 

Unfortunately, our “post-racial” society isn’t post-bias

Unfortunately, our “post-racial” society isn’t post-bias

By Amy Semmel


According to a recent study by MTV, the majority of millennials believe that they live in a “post-racial” society.  They cite Barack Obama’s presidency as a great achievement for race relations.  Having a black President even influenced a majority of the study participants to believe that people of color have the same opportunities as white people.  Unfortunately, employment statistics say otherwise. Since 1972 –when the Federal Reserve began collecting separate unemployment data for African-Americans — the black unemployment rate has stubbornly remained at least 60% higher than the white unemployment rate. The gender pay gap has barely budged in a decade, with full-time women employees being paid 78% of what men were paid.  And the gap is worse for women of color, with Hispanic women laboring at the bottom, with only 54% of white men’s earnings. 70% of Google employees are male, with only 2% Black, 3% Latino, and 30% Asian. This from the company whose motto is “Do no Evil.” How can this be? While overt racism or sexism is rarer today in corporate America, implicit biases linger.

Source: Google Official Blog - googleblog.blogspot.com

Source: Google Official Blog – googleblog.blogspot.com

Imagine that you are supervisor, with two virtually identical resumes on your desk.  Both candidates are equally qualified.  Do you gravitate toward the one with a white Anglo-Saxon name (think “Emily” or “Brendan”), or a name more likely to belong to an African-American (think “Lakisha” or “Jamal”)? Aware of their bias or not, hiring managers are 50% more likely to call the applicant with the white-sounding name in for an interview.  There is a growing body of research like this that proves that implicit bias is real and is having real-life consequences for people who are considered “other” in terms of race, disability, sexual orientation and other characteristics. (There are even on-line tests you can take to find out about your own implicit biases.)  But even as our understanding of how implicit bias leads to discrimination grows, judges often fail to recognize that discrimination can result from unconscious stereotypes or subtle preferences for people similar to oneself—perhaps today even more than overt bigotry.  To truly provide equal opportunity for all, social science research into how people actually behave in the workplace must inform the enforcement of anti-discrimination laws.

Amy Semmel

About Amy Semmel

Ms. Semmel devotes her practice to eradicating discrimination and retaliation in the workplace. She advocates for employees seeking remedies for retaliation for whistleblowing, discrimination and wage theft. Ms. Semmel is frequently invited to speak at conferences and seminars throughout the state. Subjects on which she has spoken include discovery issues in employment litigation; liability of successor, electronic discovery, alter ego and joint employers; the Private Attorney General Act, and developments in wage and hour law.

Fifty years after sex discrimination became illegal, the focus is still on how women behave instead of changing organizations to eliminate gender bias 3

Fifty years after sex discrimination became illegal, the focus is still on how women behave instead of changing organizations to eliminate gender bias

programmerBy Ramit Mizrahi

Women: “Lean in.” “Be more confident.” “Ask for a raise, but do it in a way that is ‘feminine’ so you don’t come off as demanding or unlikeable.”

We’ve had a surge of self-help articles and books telling women how to navigate a biased system. But, fifty years after sex discrimination was first made illegal, shouldn’t the focus be on how to stop the bias in the first place?

In this two-part series, I’ll first discuss how implicit biases harm women in the workplace and then cover some of the steps we can take to reduce bias.

Identifying the Problem

Many male managers believe that the glass ceiling has been shattered. This opinion, however, is not shared by their female counterparts, who know from experience that sex discrimination is alive and well in the workplace. While overt discrimination has been on the decline for the past half-century, subtle forms of discrimination are still pervasive. This is especially true in high-level jobs where criteria for advancement are more subjective. Even well-meaning executives make judgments and take actions that reflect stereotypes and implicit attitudes that disadvantage female candidates for promotion.

In the past 20 years, there has been an explosion of research about what has come to be called cognitive or implicit bias. It all begins with the research proving that even the best-intentioned people harbor biases. This is true of men and woman of all ages and races; no one is immune. It’s not that we set out to judge women or minorities more harshly or treat them less favorably. What happens instead is that our internalized stereotypes and assumptions about certain groups of people end up influencing our judgments and evaluations without us realizing it.

As psychologist Virginia Valian has explained in her book Why So Slow? The Advancement of Women,

“A woman does not walk into the room with the same status as an equivalent man, because she is less likely than a man to be viewed as a serious professional.”

People hold gendered expectations, and women who don’t meet them are viewed as less capable. For example, if asked to visualize a computer programmer, for example, one will likely think of a man (probably “geeky” and younger); someone who doesn’t fit that image will then be at a disadvantage as people wonder if she’s “as good.”

When a man succeeds, his success is seen as confirmation of his innate ability, whereas a woman’s success is often attributed to luck or simplicity of the task. When she fails, however, her failure is seen as reflection of her (lack of) ability.

It gets even more complicated when assessing leadership, particularly in jobs that are perceived as masculine. Male leaders may be judged better than female leaders who are equally effective, but who lead with a less aggressive style. Attitudes about proper gender roles positively affect performance evaluations for leaders who conform to gender norms, and negatively affect performance evaluations of women who are engaged in nontraditional employment.

Gender norms can produce a double-bind effect. In some work environments women must speak more (or louder) than men if they want to get their ideas noticed, but when they do, they are derided as pushy. In problem-solving situations social scientists have observed that women get more negative facial expressions from both male and female peers, and are perceived less positively than men, even when they follow the same script as males.

Even “neutral” evaluators can be affected. When observing a woman struggling to be heard by others, receiving negative facial expressions, and having her points ignored, outside evaluators may attribute the reaction of peers to the woman’s lesser ability, or to her bossiness, rather than to gender bias. Professor Valian describes how people who would never endorse overt “statements such as, ‘Women do not command respect from their subordinates,’ may nevertheless feel comfortable saying, ‘Lee does not command respect from her subordinates.’ The latter comment is just a ‘fact’ about Lee, arrived at through impartial and fair observation.”

While each such instance on its own may be considered inconsequential, over the course of a woman’s career, they combine to undermine career success.

Subtle biases can lead to huge differences in how people are treated based on their perceived sex. In a 2012 study, Yale-based researchers sought to explore differences in how science faculty from large research universities rate applications for a lab manager position based on the perceived sex of the applicant. They sent 127 volunteer professors from six research institutions the application of an undergraduate science student who had applied for a lab manager position. Each of the professors received the same materials, except that some were randomly assigned the name of a female student while others were assigned a male name. They were asked to rate the student’s competence and hireability, as well as the amount of salary and mentoring they would offer the student.

The results were startling:

  • — The female student was deemed less competent (on a 5-point scale as with the other measures in this study, rated 3.33 by male faculty and 3.32 by female faculty as compared to the male rated 4.01 and 4.1).
  • — The female student was deemed less hirable (rated 2.96 by male faculty and 2.84 by female faculty as compared to the male rated 3.74 and 3.92).
  • — The female student was offered a mean starting salary of $26,507.94 as compared to $30,238.10 offered to the male student.
  • — The female student was offered less mentoring (a rating of 4.0 by male faculty and 3.91 by female faculty as compared to the male rated 4.74 and 4.73).
  • — The female student was evaluated as being more likeable, but that did not translate into positive perceptions of her competence of benefits in terms of a job offer, a higher salary, or more mentoring.

These results were consistent across gender, age, scientific discipline, and tenure status. The researchers concluded that faculty gender bias, unconscious and unintended, impedes women’s full participation in science.

Similar effects were observed in another study that focused on race. In a study targeting the legal profession, researchers enlisted five law partners to draft a memo on trade secret issues that would be presented as if written by a third-year litigation associate. They deliberately inserted 22 errors (including spelling, grammar, technical writing, factual, and analytical errors). Sixty law firm partners of different backgrounds were recruited to participate in a “writing analysis study,” and asked to review the legal memo written by “Thomas Meyer.” Half were told that the author was a white associate and half were told he was black.

Stark differences resulted in the assessments:

  • — On average, partners found 2.9 of the 7 spelling grammar in white Thomas’s memo as compared to 5.8 of the errors in African-American Thomas’s memo.
  • — Partners found an average of 4.1 of the 6 technical writing errors in white Thomas’s memo as compared to 4.9 in African-American Thomas’s memo.
  • — Partners found an average of 3.2 of the 5 errors in facts in white Thomas’s memo as compared to 3.9 in African-American Thomas’s memo.
  • — Partners provided 11 edits or comments on formatting for white Thomas while making 29 for African-American Thomas.
  • — Partners described white Thomas as someone who “has potential” with “good analytical skills” and a “generally good writer but needs to work on. . . .”
  • — They described African-American Thomas as follows: “needs lots of work,” “can’t believe he went to NYU,” and “average at best.”
  • — These biases were found across the spectrum of sex, race, and other traits.

The authors’ analysis is on point:

“When expecting to find fewer errors, we find fewer errors. When expecting to find more errors, we find more errors. That is unconscious confirmation bias. Our evaluators unconsciously found more of the errors in the “African American” Thomas Meyer’s memo, but the final rating process was a conscious and unbiased analysis based on the number of errors found. When partners say that they are evaluating assignments without bias, they are probably right in believing that there is no bias in the assessment of the errors found; however, if there is bias in the finding of the errors, even a fair final analysis cannot, and will not, result in a fair result.”

So what do we do? First, we must stop pretending to be sex blind, color blind, or blind to any other differences. Despite our best intentions, we are not. In fact, research has shown that people who most value fairness and objectivity are particularly likely to fall prey to biases, in part because they are not on guard against them.

This is not an easy task.  Fifty years after the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, we can all agree that intentionally discriminating against someone because of her sex or race is an act that is morally reprehensible as well as illegal. But can we equally embrace the lesson learned from years of social science research into implicit bias – that we all harbor biases? Unless and until individuals and organizations are willing to grapple with this uncomfortable truth, we will be unable to dismantle these hidden barriers head on.

Ramit Mizrahi

About Ramit Mizrahi

Ramit Mizrahi, the founder of Mizrahi Law, APC, practices in the area of employment law, representing employees exclusively. Her work focuses on cases involving discrimination, harassment, retaliation, leave law issues, and wrongful termination. She is a graduate of Yale Law School, The London School of Economics, and UC-Berkeley.

Sweat, blood, tears and stock options: the labor laws that protect all of us, even startup entrepreneurs

Sweat, blood, tears and stock options: the labor laws that protect all of us, even startup entrepreneurs

By Daniel Velton

If you live in Silicon Valley, it’s hard to miss news about deals like the recent $19 billion acquisition of WhatsApp, a young instant messaging company with a mere 55 employees. Or the $1 billion purchase of Instagram, a photo-sharing startup employing only about a dozen folks. Or the blockbuster deal for Waze, a small smartphone navigation company.

The lore of startup culture is by now well known. These often casual workplaces boast features like ping pong tables, 3D printer vending machines, skeeball, rock climbing walls, motorcycles, video games, draught beer taps, yoga mats and arcades. (Now television viewers can tune in to the startup world through a new HBO series.)

As hard as startuppers play, they work even harder. In their blur of 60-80 hour workweeks and caffeinated coding, dreams of being part of The Next Big Deal feed their dedication. They give up a lot of themselves and their personal lives in exchange for the elusive prospect of an early retirement. Many, though, often lose sight of the fact that there’s at least one thing they don’t give up — their rights.

California’s labor laws protect all of us, whether we work in shorts and flip-flops (or bunny slippers) in a fast and loose startup culture, or in slacks and dress shirts in a more traditional corporate environment.   More than one startup has learned this lesson the hard way.  The free-wheeling culture at Square Inc. has been cited by some as leading to a sexual harassment claim against the company’s chief operating officer.  Then there were claims of intimidation, violence and gunplay at the heart of a retaliation lawsuit against Color Labs’ co-founder.  And then there is the seminal Silicon Valley age discrimination case – Reid v. Google, Inc. – involving a 52-year-old manager allegedly referred to by managers as a “fuddy-duddy” with ideas “too old to matter.”   Eventually, his termination lawsuit went all the way to the California Supreme Court, which ruled that comments like those could establish age discrimination.   Finally, though well past its start-up phase, even tech giant Oracle Corporation was recently hit with a claim for retaliation by a sales manager who objected to what he says was national origin discrimination against Indian employees.

Silicon Valley interests may have successfully pushed through an 11th hour budget trailer in 2008 to end overtime pay for many computer professionals, but even in the wild world of startups, there are still laws protecting workers.  The bottom line is that laws that prohibit discrimination, retaliation and harassment, statutes that require employers to accommodate disabled employees, rules that mandate overtime pay for most hourly workers — these and many other protections cover all of us, regardless of where we work.

Startup employees may sell their souls, but they should be mindful that their legal rights don’t go away as part of the bargain.

 

Daniel Velton

About Daniel Velton

Daniel Velton began his career with the largest labor and employment law firm in the world. Using that experience, he brings valuable knowledge and perspective to his current practice, in which he exclusively represents employees in individual and class action discrimination, wrongful termination, harassment, wage and hour, and other employment cases.

EEOC loses battle (but not war) on discriminatory background checks 2

EEOC loses battle (but not war) on discriminatory background checks

By Christian Schreiber

When it dismissed a federal lawsuit last week, the U.S. District Court for Maryland made it even harder for workers with poor credit histories and past criminal convictions to find a job.  Civil rights advocates hope the decision is not a bellwether for similar cases pending around the country.

The lawsuit, brought by the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, charged Freeman, a privately-held event-management company, with violating Title VII of the Civil Rights Act through its use of credit and criminal background checks.  According to the EEOC’s complaint, the employer’s decision to use background checks to screen out job applicants amounted to discrimination because it disproportionately impacted African-American and male job applicants.

Freeman’s hiring process involved detailed inquiries into both the applicant’s credit histories and criminal backgrounds.  Freeman “regularly ran credit checks for 44 job titles,” and excluded all applicants from certain positions who met any of 12 different categories of purported credit-unworthiness.  Even common credit blemishes, such as credit card charge-offs, medical liens, unpaid student loans, or foreclosures would result in the applicant being rejected.

The Freeman court joined the chorus of employers extolling what some consider the “common sense” of performing credit and criminal background checks.    These proponents also ignore the studies demonstrating that credit problems do not predict employee performance, as well as those that document atrocious error rates on credit checks.   A report released by the Federal Trade Commission earlier this year found that a quarter of consumers identified errors on their credit report that might affect their credit scores.

In 2011, California limited the use of credit checks in employment.  After three prior attempts were vetoed by Governor Schwarzenegger, the bill was itself an object lesson in persistence.  However, the law also established broad exceptions to the “prohibition” on employment-related credit checks, effectively blessing their use across jobs and industries where the need or utility has never been demonstrated.

In addition to the credit-check hurdle, Freeman’s standard employment application form asked, “Have you ever pleaded guilty to, or been convicted of, a criminal offense?”  Applicants were told certain convictions would not be considered in the hiring process (yeah, right), but the company acknowledged a “bright-line rule” that disqualified any applicant who “failed to disclose a conviction, seriously misrepresented the circumstances of a criminal offense, or made any other materially dishonest statement on the application.”

In June, the EEOC filed two similar complaints against Dollar General Corp and BMW, alleging that the companies’ use of criminal background checks resulted in a disparate impact against African-American job applicants.  Referred to as “disparate impact” cases, these types of challenges stand or fall on the persuasiveness of the parties’ statistical evidence.  In the EEOC v. Freeman case, the court let loose on the EEOC’s expert, excoriating his methodology and ultimately calling his findings “an egregious example of scientific dishonesty.” (Ouch.)  Though it may be possible to blunt the impact of Freeman simply by putting on better statistical evidence, the decision nonetheless entrenches practical misconceptions and legal standards that are hostile to workers.

These cases are being watched closely by consumer and civil rights advocates, who still hold out hope that the EEOC’s oversight of these employment policies will curtail the increasing use of background checks to screen out applicants.   Advocates hope Freeman doesn’t signal that more bad news lies ahead.

Christian Schreiber

About Christian Schreiber

Christian Schreiber is a partner at Chavez & Gertler, where he works primarily on class actions involving employment and consumer rights, civil rights, and financial services matters.

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