New step for job applicants: FBI checks

Who are you?

In the wake of Sept. 11, an increasing number of companies - prompted in part by the government - are rolling out the fingerprint pads to find out. They are zipping the ink stains over to the FBI, calling the Immigration and Naturalization Service to check on legal status, and hiring outside screeners to make sure job résumés are accurate. The scramble to check history is stretching from limo drivers to airline pilots to chefs.

Proponents of the new snooping say it may help root out potential problems by finding people with a past criminal history or fake citizenship papers.

Opponents fear it will result in many people being fired for youthful indiscretions they have already served time for. It is an issue likely to find its way into the courts because real jobs - and livelihoods - are at stake.

"This is probably the most security conscious we have been in the last 60 years," says Phil Anderson of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the firms that specialize in screening potential employees for other companies. At ChoicePoint, based in metro Atlanta, "the phones lit up" right after Sept. 11, says Dave Cook, vice president in charge of sales and marketing. "People said we're not looking broad enough or deep enough at our employees."

The searches are turning up some unpleasant surprises. Mr. Cook says his firm has identified hundreds of major thefts and murders that may not have been reported on employment applications.

In the past, banks, defense contractors, and those who were required by law, such as schools and day-care centers, did the checks. Now, the universe has expanded. For example, the temp business is now checking for criminal violations. "Their clients are requiring it, so they are doing it," says Albert Bueno, president of RSI, based in Hollywood, Fla.

Last month, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued proposed security guidelines that include background checks for the 11 million people who work in the food business. And the airline industry faced a deadline to fingerprint any worker with access to a secure area.

The fingerprints will be sent to the FBI for what is called a "national agency check." This is the same initial screening that the military performs to verify criminal records and citizenship. "The FBI database is pretty good," says Mr. Anderson. "If you could do that for everyone, I think it would at least narrow the focus and reduce the risk."

However, Gordon Adams, director of security-policy studies at George Washington University, calls it "probably a good idea that's run slightly amok." He worries that it will result in long delays in people getting jobs and "the longest line for [security] approval you've ever seen."

The increased security is something organized labor is keeping its eye on, says John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO. Although he recognizes the need for tighter security, "We will be striving to make changes to whatever might be onerous on workers and on their work careers," he says.

The Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) estimates that up to 1 million aviation employees who have access to secure areas will be fingerprinted, because no screeners had FBI background checks prior to 1998 and no pilots prior to 1996. At the end of December, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) sent out a list of 28 felony convictions that could disqualify an airline employee - such as a pilot, mechanic, or ramp worker - from working in secure areas.

John Mazor, a spokesman for ALPA, worries that some airport workers will be disqualified because of domestic problems with a spouse or some long-ago indiscretion. "There are situations where otherwise good people could find themselves put on that [disqualification] list," says Mr. Mazor.

Bill Engle, who was an executive at 20th Century Fox, knows all about the effects of background checks. In 1978, he was convicted of pandering - that is, running an illegal massage parlor in Orange County, Calif. He served a jail sentence. But he didn't tell Fox that information when he filled out his job application.

Mr. Engle, a former police officer, was promoted four times during his seven years at Fox. As chief of security, he says he discovered various alleged wrongdoings, including what he thought were illegal background searches of celebrities and employees. He put it all together in a notebook and brought them to his boss. "He almost jumped away and said, 'I don't want anything to do with it,' " recalls Engle.

Shortly thereafter, Fox fired him for not reporting that he had been convicted of the felony. They ended up suing each other, with Fox dredging up as much about his past as they could. The firing "was very shattering to me," says Engle, now an executive at another company. Erin Cooper Rotgin, the attorney for Fox who litigated the case, did not return phone calls.

Privacy-rights groups worry that such background searches may result in many people losing their jobs for past wrongs. "My long-term worry is that we are creating a larger and larger number of people who are disenfranchised from all societal activity, but most important cannot get work," says Beth Givens, director of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse in San Diego.

Lawyers involved in labor law warn that employers are walking a tightrope. "If they react to information that is stale and unrelated to a job, they do so at their own peril," says Gerald Skoning, a lawyer with Seyfarth Shaw in Chicago. "If you don't hire as a result of a background check, you may be sued for invasion of privacy, or wrongful discharge."

But Mr. Skoning says firms also have to weigh the risk of not acting on an employee's past. "If there is a dangerous situation, such as a nuclear accident, the victims could sue the company for negligent retention."

The restaurant industry, meanwhile, says it doesn't really think the FDA intends it to comply with the guidelines. "Even those who wrote those guidelines don't have FBI background checks," says Steve Grover, of the National Restaurant Association in Washington. "We are going to make sure that everything is secure, but some of those recommendations do go a bit far."

Paul Bresson, a spokesman for the FBI, says that doing criminal checks on everyone involved in the food business would strain his agency's resources.

In fact, Mr. Bresson says the FBI can't do criminal checks on an individual unless there is some kind of law mandating them. "If a law passes, he says, "of course we will."

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