Paying $17.75 an hour, U.S. Census jobs, though temporary, are attractive in an economy where unemployment is stuck at 9.7 percent. But the Census Bureau's screening policies, designed to safeguard the public, end up discriminating against minorities, according to a federal lawsuit filed Tuesday.
That's because the bureau has set up an "arbitrary barrier to employment" for any person with an arrest record, "no matter how trivial or disconnected from the requirements of the job," the lawsuit, filed in Manhattan, says. U.S. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke is named as the defendant.
The national suit, filed by Outten & Golden L.L.P. in New York and a coalition of public-interest organizations, seeks class-action status on behalf of those turned down for a job if they were arrested and not convicted, or convicted for an offense irrelevant to the job.
* * *
One of the two lead plaintiffs, Evelyn Houser, 69, of North Philadelphia, thinks she is qualified to fill one of the 1.2 million census positions. That's because Houser worked for the census before, in 1990.
"What's the difference between then and now?" she asked in an interview Tuesday. "It's like a slap in the face."
The difference, said her lawyer, Sharon Dietrich with Community Legal Services in Philadelphia, is the government's cumbersome screening process.Computers kick back any application with an arrest record, requiring more documentation, but the Census Bureau doesn't make it clear what documentation is required, Dietrich said.
The discrimination occurs because the arrest and conviction rates of African Americans, Latinos and Native Americans exceed those of whites, the suit says. Compounding the problem, it says, is that one in three arrests do not lead to prosecution or conviction, yet the bureau's system does not readily distinguish between arrests and convictions.
"The processes are screening out any kind of criminal case, no matter what," Dietrich said.
"If you were arrested years ago for a minor offense, you are asked to comply with the same burdensome process as if you had been released from jail last week after committing a murder," she said,
Plaintiffs' attorney Samuel Miller, of Outten & Golden, estimates that as many as one million applicants may have been caught up in the process, with tens of thousands unfairly deterred or excluded from employment.
In 1981, Houser was a 39-year-old mother raising four children on welfare and food stamps. Her monthly check was several days away, but she was out of food when, going outside to take out the trash, she found a check next to the Dumpster.
"I went home and told my kids, 'God sent me a piece of paper that says we're going to eat tonight.' "
Houser shouldn't have done it, but she tried to cash the check. She was arrested. Instead of being convicted, she was placed in alternative rehabilitation program. Her record remains clean, Dietrich said.
In 1990, Houser got a job with the census. Last year, she decided to apply again and passed a qualifying test.
A month or so later, the Census Bureau sent her a letter, asking her for documentation. The way she read it, her fingerprints would suffice, so she had them taken and sent them in the next day.
The bureau rejected her because, it said, she hadn't sent the right documentation. Dietrich called the bureau's communications confusing.Since then, Houser has been involved in a long appeals process, which culminated in the filing of the suit.
Houser, who lives in subsidized housing, estimated that 25 percent of her working-age neighbors are unemployed. They are "just existing," she said. "It's just survival."
She's helping her neighbors find a path to employment, Houser said. "I'm a little gray-haired old lady and I'm trying to lead them in a better way."