The Census Bureau is hiring a million or more people to assist with the 2010 count. It is temporary work, but it pays well. With national unemployment at nearly 10 percent, it looks like an excellent opportunity. That is unless you are one of the nearly 50 million Americans with any arrest or conviction on record.
A new class-action lawsuit has been filed on behalf of applicants who say they were unfairly turned down for census jobs based on an opaque screening policy that relies on F.B.I. checks for any criminal histories. Those checks are notoriously unreliable. A 2006 federal report found that half of them were inaccurate or out of date.
The Census Bureau is vague about what makes someone ineligible. In Congressional testimony, it suggested that it is excluding people who have been convicted of crimes involving violence and dishonesty. The bureau’s Web site seems to say that applicants whose background checks turn up any arrest — no matter how trivial, distant in time, irrelevant to the job — receive a letter advising them that they can remain eligible only if they produce “official court documentation” bearing on the case within 30 days. Incredibly, the letter does not identify the alleged criminal activity. Applicants must prove eligibility, even if they don’t know why they were flagged.
Official court records are often unobtainable for the millions of people whose convictions have been sealed or expunged or for people who have been arrested and released because of lack of evidence or mistaken arrest. This problem falls heaviest on black and Hispanic communities where stop-and-frisk policies and indiscriminate arrests are common.
The hiring problem is not limited to the Census Bureau. After 9/11, Congress required port workers to undergo F.B.I. background checks to keep their jobs. Last year, a study by the National Employment Law Project, an advocacy group for workers, found that the government had mistakenly denied credentials to tens of thousands of those workers.
States and cities are wisely revising employment policies. The federal government needs to develop a fair and transparent screening system for job applicants and a more effective appeals process. Congress must also require the F.B.I. to verify the criminal records — and find missing data before issuing background checks.