Fighting racial discrimination in the workplace

Thursday, December 8, 2016

The ILR School is primed to take center stage as part of a landmark class action settlement involving 450,000 African-American and Latino job seekers who sought work with the U.S. Census Bureau.

According to Adam Klein ’87, lead attorney for the plaintiffs, “It’s an opportunity for the school to further its thought leadership and make a difference on a macro and U.S. economy level, to advance the interests of employees and the workplace.”

Klein’s firm, Outten & Golden LLP, represented job seekers in a lawsuit against the census agency. Job applicants were rejected for the 2010 census based on a flawed hiring process due to use of an often inaccurate and incomplete FBI conviction database.

To be eligible for employment consideration, applicants were given 30 days to produce their actual criminal records. In most cases, this was tantamount to outright rejection, Klein said.

The lawsuit alleged that African-American and Latino applicants were rejected at higher rates than applicants of other races — a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The federal court approved settlement of the case this year. Klein’s firm will receive settlement funds on behalf of the plaintiffs to help remedy the records problem that blocked their hiring.

Klein turned to ILR’s Labor and Employment Law Program and Esta Bigler ’70, program director, to help with the solution.

For the past eight years, the program has been in the forefront of bringing together diverse parties for dialogue, education and research on reducing barriers to employment for people with criminal records.

“We can’t afford to have people who were once convicted not be able to find a job,” Bigler said. “Not only is employment a driver in terms of our economy, but where people can find their sense of self and support their family.”

As a result of the settlement and leveraging ILR’s unique expertise, ILR’s Labor and Employment Law Program is slated to begin a $4.9 million contract with Klein’s firm to help plaintiffs avert future hiring issues related to their criminal records.

ILR’s contract establishes the Records Assistance Program, which will provide educational support to help the lawsuit members understand the details and correct their criminal records.

Bigler said, “The hope is that this settlement will help people learn how to read their records, resolve discrepancies, and enable them to present potential employers with accurate and understandable documents, increasing employment prospects.”

According to Klein, “around a third of the U.S. population has some criminal record and it’s commonly used as an employment screen, which clearly makes it relevant to the workplace and thus, relevant to the work of the school. What better place than ILR to house this project?”

In addition, data collected as a result of this project has the potential to offer research opportunities for developing effective strategies for increasing the employment of citizens returning to the workplace.

Joining Bigler in working to build the corollary research capacity are ILR’s Martin Wells, Lars Vilhuber, Hassan Enayati and Linda Barrington, as well as Erin York Cornwell from Cornell’s Department of Sociology.

Bigler said, “ILR is the perfect place to study this issue, combining all of our missions about improving the world of work, social justice and fighting discrimination in the workplace. This is what we’re about."