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Lawmakers slam faulty background checks on railroad workers

(The Associated Press circulated the following article on February 8.)

WASHINGTON -- At least three dozen railroad workers may have been fired unfairly because they failed background checks recommended by the Homeland Security Department, Democratic congressmen said Thursday.

Civil rights activist Jesse Jackson and House Judiciary Chairman John Conyers, D-Mich., said Thursday they’re trying to find out why railroad workers were told they were dismissed because of directives from the Transportation Security Administration, which is part of Homeland Security.

“We want to determine whether these TSA policies are being imposed properly,” Conyers said in a statement. “Without uniform rules and a fair appeals process, we cannot stand by while these companies take away the lifeline of hardworking, honest people.”

The use of background checks as a security measure has grown since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Hundreds of thousands of airport workers, longshoremen, mariners and haz-mat drivers are subject to background checks before they’re issued the security badges or licenses necessary for them to do their jobs.

TSA spokeswoman Ellen Howe said the TSA hasn’t ordered railroads to conduct background checks on their workers, but does recommend them.

“It makes sense to do background checks on employees who have access to critical infrastructure,” Howe said. “We would also say do training for your employees, do physical security, do preparedness.”

Jackson came to Washington Thursday to enlist support for the railroad workers, ex-felons who had clean employment records but were fired after background checks by an Internet-based investigation revealed their pasts.

Many were hired under work-release programs, Jackson said.

“They had been working for the railroad for three to 11 years,” Jackson said. “There was no accusation of lack of work ethic, inattention, but homeland security.”

In a letter dated Nov. 17, David Johnston of Chicago appealed to keep his job with a contractor for BNSF Railway. Johnston admitted he had a felony conviction for driving while intoxicated, but said he hadn’t had a drink since joining Alcoholics Anonymous shortly afterward.

“I ask that my efforts to cope with this disability be considered and that this disabling condition, which I address every day, not be used as a basis for prohibiting me from working in a job I very much enjoy,” Johnston wrote.

Juan Escobedo of Chicago pleaded for his job with a contractor for BNSF Railway in a Jan. 17 e-mail to the company. He admitted to his conviction for aggravated battery.

“Yes, I have a felony conviction,” Escobedo wrote. “But no, I am not a terrorist. I came to work every day, on time and devoted myself to my employer and to BNSF. I made a mistake in the past, but I have tried to move forward. My life has been so much better, after I got the job.”

Joining Jackson and Conyers were House Transportation Committee Chairman James Oberstar, D-Minn., House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., and a half-dozen other Democratic members of Congress.

“Many hard workers with great attendance records and an ability to be promoted were terminated without an opportunity for redress,” Thompson said. “We must secure the nation without compromising the civil rights of its citizens.”

Teamsters union spokeswoman Leigh Strope said disqualifying offenses should be limited to those that suggest someone is a true terrorist risk.

“When someone has paid their debt to society and has a clean employment record, they should not be punished again,” Strope said.

Friday, February 9, 2007

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