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The Census Bureau Will Pay $15 Million For Racial Discrimination After The Recession

Apr 21, 2016 / Media Coverage / ThinkProgress — Carimah Townes

In 2010, the Census Bureau rejected 450,000 black and Latino job applicants because of a flawed criminal background checking process. Now, the federal agency charged with collecting data on all U.S. citizens is paying the price — to the tune of $15 million.

During the last census cycle, there were one million temporary jobs available to people hit hard by the Great Recession. But 850,000 applicants, more than half of whom were black or Latino, were denied employment because of criminal backgrounds flagged by the FBI. Applicants had 30 days to procure and file FBI documents to explain their records, but thousands of people were disqualified because they were simply unable to do so in such a short time. There is also a strong possibility that “incomplete” or “under reported” information from the FBI’s criminal database was used in the process, according to attorneys.

A class action suit was filed in 2014 on behalf of the applicants of color who said their rights were violated because of their race. Because African Americans and Latinos are disproportionately arrested — and likely to have a criminal background as a result — plaintiffs argued that the federal agency violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which “prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin.”

“Some people may not have had criminal records to begin with,” lead attorney Adam Klein said in a statement. Indeed, the National Employment Law Project found that FBI records stay in an online database, even if the charge on record is dismissed. The FBI also fails to note when a record has been cleared by local law enforcement.

The census jobs plaintiffs applied for in 2010 were temporary, but they were in high demand for people trying to rebuild their lives after the financial crisis.

Millions of Americans were searching for jobs at the time, although black and Latino citizens were hit particularly hard by the crisis. The Census Bureau concluded that blacks’ median household net worth was obliterated after 2009, dropping to $4,955 in 2010 — 22 times lower than the median household net worth for white people ($111,729). Latino households also had a significantly lower net worth of $7,424.

The Department of Commerce predicted the census jobs would have “potentially measurable effects on the overall growth rate of the economy,” but 450,000 of the people who needed employment the most were turned away.

Six years later, the U.S. Department of Commerce, which houses the Census Bureau, announced a $15 million settlement with the plaintiffs. Some of that money will go toward attorney fees. A large portion will be funneled into an improved background checking system ahead of the 2020 census.

“This settlement will require the Census Bureau to replace its arbitrary and racially discriminatory use of criminal records and develop a rational job-related method to determine whether an applicant has a criminal history which justifies his or her rejection from these essentially entry level jobs,” Klein said.

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