WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed lawsuits Tuesday against discount retailer Dollar General Corp. and a BMW manufacturing plant in South Carolina over their use of criminal background checks to screen out job applicants or fire employees.
In both cases, the agency claims the practice discriminates against African-Americans, who have higher arrest and conviction rates than whites.
The two lawsuits are the first since the agency issued revised guidance last year to warn employers against using overly broad criminal checks in a way that could limit job opportunities for people with past convictions. The commission says it wants to reduce barriers to employment for those with past criminal records who "have been held accountable and paid their dues."
The EEOC alleges that BMW's policy affected dozens of employees working for a contractor that staffed a BMW warehouse in Spartanburg, S.C. The contractor's policy was not to employ anyone with a criminal record within the past seven years. When a new contractor took over the company, BMW ordered a new round of criminal background checks and fired anyone with a criminal record from any year.
Of the 88 workers fired, 70 were black. Some had worked for BMW — through the contractor — for more than a decade, the EEOC alleged in a lawsuit filed in federal district court in Spartanburg. The commission claims the BMW policy is a "blanket exclusion" without any regard for the nature and gravity of the crimes, how old they are, or whether they are relevant to the type of work being performed.
BMW spokeswoman 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."
In the Dollar General case, the EEOC filed a nationwide lawsuit in federal district court in Chicago based on charges of discrimination filed by two rejected black job applicants. One applicant was offered employment even though she disclosed a 6-year-old conviction for possession of a controlled substance, the EEOC said. But her job offer was allegedly revoked because Dollar General's policy was to disqualify anyone who had that type of conviction within the past 10 years.
Another applicant to Dollar General was fired by the company despite the fact that a report showing she had a felony conviction was wrong, the EEOC said. Even after she advised Dollar General of the mistake, the company did not reverse its decision to fire her, the agency claimed.
"Overcoming barriers to employment is one of our strategic enforcement priorities," 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 records."
A Dollar General spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The EEOC says it attempted to resolve both cases through settlement before filing lawsuits. It is seeking back pay for the rejected applicants and for those fired, as well as injunctive relief to prevent future discrimination.
The new EEOC guidelines issued last year urge employers to give job applicants a chance to explain past criminal misconduct before they are rejected. It also recommends that employers stop asking about past convictions on job applications.
Some employers see the checks as a way to weed out unsavory workers and prevent negligent hiring claims.