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Amazon driver dismissals spark questions, concern

Jule Pattison-Gordon
Amazon driver dismissals spark questions, concern
Photo credit: “Smile! You’ve got a Package form Amazon!” by Silus Grok https://www.flickr.com/photos/silusgrok/2056752817

Amazon drew fire from the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic yesterday for new background check rules that the civil rights group said disproportionately sparked the dismissal of many effectively-performing workers of color.

On August 5, 2016, many delivery drivers subcontracted by the internet retailer were called at the end of their shifts and told to turn in their uniforms and not come back, according to Lawyers’ Committee attorney Oren Sellstrom.

“These were individuals who were actually working successfully performing the job they were hired to do — and had been for months — with no performance issues,” Sellstrom told the Banner.

The apparent reason: Amazon instructed its delivery contractors nationwide to implement stricter background checks that day, resulting in termination for many with prior criminal justice involvement. One company in the Boston area dismissed 30 to 40 employees, according to the Lawyers’ Committee.

Racial disparities in the criminal justice system mean the new background checks seem to have to hit harder employees of color.

“Due to over-policing and over-incarceration in communities of color, unnecessarily stringent background checks disproportionately affect black and Latino individuals,” the Lawyers’ Committee said in a statement.

The terminated individuals were not given the opportunity for one-on-one discussion or review, Sellstrom said.

That the background check change seems unprompted is a major concern of the Lawyers’ Committee, which has requested Amazon provide an explanation for its actions, analysis of the impact on people of color and a meeting.

According to a statement Amazon provide the Banner, the company requires driver background checks from delivery service providers to screen for job-related issues, such as motor vehicle convictions, and does not consider demographic information such as race or ethnicity.

“Safety and customer trust are our top priorities, which is why we have always required delivery service providers to conduct comprehensive background checks for their employee drivers,” Kelly Cheeseman, Amazon spokesperson, said in a statement. “The background check process is focused on job related criminal and motor vehicle convictions and does not consider race, gender, ethnicity, religion or other protected characteristics.”

However, if a policy causes disparate impact without justifying it as a business necessity, it could violate federal law — regardless of whether the discrimination is intentional, the Lawyers Committee notes in their letter. Amazon ran into similar issues earlier this year, when it emerged that their method for determining where to provide Prime services deemed Roxbury the only place in Greater Boston not strategic to cover. Amazon representatives said at the time that the decision was based on assessments of cost-effectiveness and logistics. The company later extended service to include the neighborhood.

The revelation prompted some to call for companies to abandon race-neutral company strategies in favor of approaches that proactively identify and combat racial inequities.

Background checks

In an August 5 email provided to the Banner by the Lawyers’ Committee, an Amazon representative instructs Boston dispatchers to deactivate those workers whose background checks that show they do not “meet the requirements for delivery on the Amazon account,” effective that day. Contractors also were to ensure drivers received background checks from the company Accurate Background Check, if their checks had been conducted by different providers. The email subject line is marked “Urgent and Critical.”