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The Value of Background Checks – A Legally Compliant Screening Program

By ClearStar | Mar 7, 2016 | Company News

The following article is presented courtesy of Montserrat C. Miller, a partner in the Privacy and Consumer Regulatory; Immigration; and Government Affairs practice groups at Arnall Golden Gregory LLP in Washington, D.C. This article reviews key points to consider when conducting employment (and volunteer) background screening.

Although the article references the National Background Check Program for long term care employees, the information is pertinent to any employer in the US, in any industry. It also provides valuable information for organizations conducting background screening for volunteer programs, since those background screens are considered to fall under the same rules as “employment” screens by the Fair Credit Reporting Act.

The Affordable Care Act provides grants to states to implement background check programs for prospective long-term-care employees in settings such as nursing facilities, home health agencies and hospices. The grant program, known as the National Background Check Program (NBCP), is intended to ensure that long-term-care employees undergo a minimum level of screening to protect patients. Three types of background checks are required by the NBCP: (1) a search of State-based abuse and neglect registries and databases; (2) a check of State criminal history records, and (3) a fingerprint-based check of FBI criminal history records. However, according to a recent Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General (OIG) report, the NBCP has a long way to go before it is fully viable. (National Background Check Program for Long-Term-Care Employees: Interim Report, January 2016)

This is just as well considering that the third type of check – a fingerprint-based check by FBI records – is not, in this author’s opinion the panacea that many believe it to be. Name-based checks, when done using multiple identifiers, can be more accurate. Moreover, information in the FBI’s database is limited and does not always contain final disposition information. But fingerprint-based checks and the FBI are for another article. In the meantime, what are steps that long-term-care facilities and providers can take to protect themselves, their workforce and their patients. It is important to note that the guidance provided in this article is applicable across-the-board, to all employers in the United States who conduct background checks and not limited to long-term-care facilities and providers.

Regardless of whether a facility or organization is mandated to conduct certain background checks on employees, or is conducting such checks for due diligence purposes, it is important to understand the basics behind ensuring a legally compliant background screening program. The following bullet points will address the basics and some key elements of a complaint background screening program.

  • First, if your organization works with a third-party background screening company and they provide you with your background check reports, you are covered by the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act (15 U.S.C. § 1681 et seq.) in addition to analog state consumer protection statutes. As the “end-user” of “consumer reports” provided by a “consumer reporting agency” you have certain responsibilities under the FCRA. Failure to follow these responsibilities can lead to private litigation for violations of the FCRA and state laws, especially when we consider a very active plaintiff’s bar bringing claims against primarily end-users of consumer reports (i.e., employers) but also consumer reporting agencies (i.e., background screening companies).
  • Second, employers have an obligation to provide certain disclosures to job applicants when conducting a background check for employment purposes. A key disclosure is frequently called the “Disclosure and Authorization” notice. This notice is required by the FCRA to inform the job applicant that a background check will be conducted for employment purposes, among other things. Not providing a legally sufficient or defensible notice advising the job candidate of the fact that a background check will be conducted in a document that is “clear and conspicuous” and in a stand-alone format is the subject of significant amount of litigation around the country.
  • Third, still on the topic of the above notice and the content therein. Although the FCRA does not specify the exact content of the notice, the courts have stated that including extraneous information in it, such as a release of liability, a waiver of rights under the FCRA or language about the employment itself can cause the notice to be legally deficient.
  • Fourth, organizations must secure a job candidate’s written authorization for the background check to be conducted by a background screening vendor.
  • Fifth, whenever an organization reviews the background check report for purposes of determining employment eligibility, the FCRA requires that organization to follow certain steps if information in the report will be used “in whole or in part” to take adverse action against the subject of the report. This is called the “adverse action” process and it is a two-step process.
    • The first step is triggered when an organization reviews information in the report and makes the initial determination that the individual may be excluded from employment based on information in the report. This triggers what is known as the pre-adverse action step which requires the organization provide the job applicant with a copy of the report and a federal notice called “A Summary of Your Rights Under the Fair Credit Reporting Act.” Then, as a general rule, the organization should wait at least five (5) business days to allow the individual to review the report and challenge any inaccuracy or incomplete information in the report with both the organization and the background screening company. Sometimes, the reports do include inaccuracies and the FCRA is set up to allow individuals to address such inaccuracies through a consumer dispute process.
    • If, after a reasonable period of time (e.g., five business days) the organization determines it will not hire the individual due to information in the report, the second step is triggered. This is known as the adverse action step, and it requires that the job applicant be provided with a letter with specific content, as per the FCRA.

To be clear, above points are intended to provide a basic or general overview of what is required when conducting a background check using a background screening company and the focus is on the FCRA. Drafting or reviewing of corporate policies and procedures, as well as the forms/notices legally required is something that should be done with the assistance of legal counsel. It is also important to note that there are other factors an organization must consider as part of its background screening program. Organizations need to be mindful of “Ban the Box” laws in their states and local jurisdictions and know whether they can “ask the question” on the job application about criminal history. Also, whenever an employer uses criminal history information to screen a candidate they must be aware of guidance by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on the use of criminal history information for employment purposes. (Enforcement Guidance on the Consideration of Arrest and Conviction Records in Employment Decisions Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Number 915.002, April 2012) Finally, they must factor in state restrictions on the use of credit in the employment context.

To close the loop on the OIG report mentioned in the first paragraph. The OIG found that, four years into the grant program, the 25 states receiving grants reported varying levels of program implementation. In the six states that submitted sufficient data to calculate the percentage of prospective employees who were disqualified because of a background check, 3% of prospective employees were disqualified from employment. The OIG recommended that the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services continue to work with participating states to fully implement their programs and to improve required reporting.