Before retailing giant Walmart took over management of a distribution center in Elwood, Illinois, its nearly 600 employees were told to expect raises and benefits. Instead, advocates say up to 200 African American workers lost their jobs based on having a criminal history -- even though their prior convictions didn't stop them from being employed at the Walmart-owned facility for years.
Schneider Logistics, a third-party contractor, had managed the warehouse, but in January Walmart announced it would assume that task. The 589 workers at the 3.4 million-square-foot facility who attended Walmart town hall meetings were "excited to hear" that they would receive benefits and higher wages as a result, said Roberto Jesus Clack, associate director of the Warehouse Workers for Justice, an advocacy group.
"I was absolutely excited," said Mark Balentine, 52, when told in writing that his wages would rise to $18.65 an hour from $16.35. That excitement dissipated when Balentine began hearing from co-workers that there might be a problem with felons. That worried Balentine, given his 20-year-old conviction for cocaine possession.
Escorted off the premises
Three weeks before he was supposed to start at the Walmart-managed warehouse, Balentine was told he wouldn't be hired because of a criminal background check. On April 4, the day Walmart took over operations, four security guards escorted the 52-year-old off the premises where he had worked for more than three years, he said.
"I'm a changed person, if I could roll back the clock to 1999," said Balentine, adding: "If we don't give people chances, we're going to have overcrowded prisons. None of us should be out of a job or at the unemployment office."
Another worker, 59-year-old Laseant Sardin, was told he was ineligible to work at Walmart because of a 1985 conviction for selling cocaine, a crime for which he served 18 months in prison. "I thought I had nothing to worry about. In 1985 I made my mistake," said Sardin. "It's been 34 years. It hurts, it really hurts."
In both cases, the men had a history of doing the same job at the same place and had performed their work "so effectively that Walmart initially offered them their jobs," Christopher Williams, an attorney for the National legal Advocacy Network, told CBS MoneyWatch. "This is not only not right, we believe it is not lawful."
A class action is expected
Complaints have been filed with the Illinois Department of Human Rights and the U.S. Equal Employment Commission, with a class-action expected later, given the disproportionate impact on African Americans, the lawyer said. "A number of non-African Americans with backgrounds were allowed to continue" at their jobs, he added. Of the almost 600 people who had worked at the warehouse, between 100 and 200 had been told they wouldn't be hired as a result of background checks, all African American, said Williams.
Walmart said its process of robust criminal background checks includes an individualized review that had resulted in a number of those initially rejected to be offered employment at the Elwood distribution center. It added that "most" of those working at the facility had been kept on.
"Retaining as many existing employees as possible has always been the goal of our transition at the Elwood distribution center, and we hired hundreds of those workers," a Walmart spokesperson told CBS MoneyWatch. "We understand the importance of providing second chances, and our background checks include a thoughtful and transparent review process to help ensure everyone is treated fairly."