By Duane Marsteller / The Tennessean
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is suing Dollar
General Corp. over its criminal background checks of new hires and
employees, a case that legal experts say could affect hiring practices
In a civil lawsuit filed in Chicago on Tuesday, the
federal agency said the Goodlettsville, Tenn.-based retailer has
"engaged in ongoing, nationwide race discrimination against black
applicants" for nearly a decade.
The suit contends the company's
practice of using criminal background checks disproportionally affects
blacks, who have higher arrest and conviction rates than whites. The
agency also filed a similar suit Tuesday against a BMW manufacturing
plant in South Carolina.
"Overcoming barriers to employment is one
of our strategic enforcement strategies," EEOC spokeswoman Justine
Lisser said. "We hope that these lawsuits will further educate the
public and the employer community on the appropriate use of conviction
In a statement, Dollar General denied the EEOC's allegations and said the company would "vigorously defend" itself.
General's criminal background check process is structured to foster a
safe and healthy environment for its employees, its customers and to
protect its assets in a lawful, reasonable and non-discriminatory
manner," the company said.
The suits are the first since the EEOC
revised guidelines last year that included urging employers to stop
asking about past convictions on job applications and allow applicants
to explain past criminal conduct before they are rejected.
commission said it wanted to prevent limiting job opportunities for
those with criminal records who "have been held accountable and paid
The agency sued Dollar General on behalf of an
unidentified woman hired at the company's Waukegan, Ill., location in
2004. Although the woman disclosed a 1998 felony conviction for
possession of a controlled substance before she was hired, she was fired
shortly after beginning work because it - and a misdemeanor conviction
for possession of drug paraphernalia - appeared on her background
report, the suit said.
She fell victim to a Dollar General hiring
policy that unilaterally bans those with certain convictions within
certain time frames from working for the retailer, according to the
For example, the company won't hire anyone convicted in the
previous 10 years of flagrant non-payment of child support or possession
of drug paraphernalia, the suit said. Those convicted within the past
three years of illegal dumping or improper supervision of a child also
won't be hired.
The EEOC's suit contends the policy is too strict
and doesn't consider other factors, such as the applicant's age and
whether the crime was job-related.
The policy has resulted in
blacks being rejected at a higher rate than whites, although blacks
received just a quarter of job offers during a recent 2½-year period,
the suit said, citing data provided by Dollar General.
cases likely won't end the use of background checks, but could change
how they're used, two Nashville labor attorneys said.
require the employer to have more justification as to why some smaller
crimes are grounds not to hire an applicant," Jim Higgins of The Higgins
Firm wrote in an email. "(Still), no one is going to be required to
hire a bunch of criminals and no one is going to mandate that they stop
using background checks."
Higgins also said he doesn't believe
EEOC is overreaching with the suits - a contention disputed by an
attorney who represents employers in labor issues.
"The EEOC is
putting forward some very aggressive interpretations of the law," said
Zan Blue of Constangy, Brooks & Smith. "These are test cases, and
the defendants are unfortunate that they got selected. The EEOC chose
high-profile targets for a reason - to make examples of them."
He also said he believes Dollar General "will be a formidable foe" for the EEOC.
The BMW case focuses on a contractor that staffed a warehouse in Spartanburg, S.C., where the suit was filed.
contractor's policy was not to employ anyone with a criminal record
within the past seven years. When a new contractor took over, BMW
ordered a new round of checks and fired those with a criminal record
from any year - even those who had worked at the warehouse for more than
a decade, that suit said.
Of the 88 workers fired, 70 were black, the suit said.
spokesman Sky Foster said the company "believes that it has complied
with the letter and spirit of the law and will defend itself against the
EEOC's allegations of race discrimination."