The Employment Development Department. Randall Benton Sacramento Bee file photo, 2008
The Employment Development Department. Randall Benton Sacramento Bee file photo, 2008

The State Worker

Chronicling civil-service life for California state workers

The State Worker

Thousands of state workers face criminal background checks, and some could lose their jobs

By Adam Ashton

aashton@sacbee.com

December 08, 2017 12:56 PM

Thousands of public workers at nine state departments will undergo criminal background checks that could affect their employment, according to the state Human Resources Department.

If the background checks turn up past criminal convictions, employees could be “non-punitively separated,” according to notices sent to labor unions.

The reviews are intended to bring California in compliance with security guidelines from the Internal Revenue Service that require criminal background checks for contractors and public employees who have access to federal taxpayer information.

Separately, hundreds of employees at the Office of Emergency Services also will have to participate in upcoming criminal background checks because of regulations from the federal Department of Homeland Security.

The departments did not say when background checks would begin.

It’s not clear yet which criminal convictions would disqualify a worker from civil service. Union representatives who’ve spoken with state officials about the plan said misdemeanors and felonies would surface on the background checks.

Andrew LaMar, a spokesman for the California Department of Human Resources said the state can’t commit to retaining employees with criminal convictions in their past.

“We’re working with the departments on it,” he said.

California’s web site for applying for state jobs – jobs.ca.gov – has been redesigned to guide applicants through the hiring process.

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Labor notifications about the background checks show the state is casting a wide net in considering who might be able to observe sensitive information.

For instance, a letter to the union that represents state maintenance workers said that all 8,500 employees at the Employment Development Department would have to participate in a background check.

“It’s a blanket for everybody from the warehouse to the director,” said Steve Crouch, director of public employees for the maintenance union, the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 39.

Similar notifications have gone to state government’s largest union, Service Employees Union International Local 1000.

“The issue of background checks highlights the importance of state workers having a union, as we work to ensure that our members are protected,” said SEIU Vice President Margarita Maldonado.

Background checks will take place at the Franchise Tax Board, California Department of Tax and Fee Administration, California Department of Technology, Employment Development Department, Department of Child Support Services, Department of Social Services, Covered California, the Board of Equalization and the State Controller’s Office.

Few of the 250,000 people who work for California state government had to pass a criminal background check before starting their jobs.

Law enforcement agencies, such as the California Highway Patrol and the Department of Justice, require them. Covered California and the controller’s office also are already compliant with the new tax rule, LaMar said.

But most departments have required background checks for only specific positions, such as arson investigators at Cal Fire or workers in the Employment Development Department’s investigative division.

The Franchise Tax Board, which handles personal income tax, has required criminal background checks since 1993. Still, about 600 FTB employees who joined the department before that year will have to take a background check because of the new regulations, FTB spokesman Jacob Roper said.

The notice from the Employment Development Department said it has to describe a plan to the IRS by February or risk losing access to federal tax information that is essential for its work.

“This would significantly impede the department’s business operations,” the letter says.

The Legislature passed a budget-related bill requiring the background checks last summer. Departments began contacting unions in September.

The law requires all current employees with access to federal taxpayer information to pass a criminal background check.

Crouch from the maintenance union is hoping to narrow the group of employees affected by the background checks, such as by “grandfathering” current workers who did not take background checks as conditions of employment and applying the new policy to future job applicants.

“I’m just really bothered by it,” he said. “People have poor judgment or they make bad decisions and then make amends. It shouldn’t come to a point where they lose their bloody job over it.”

Both the tax-related departments and the Office of Emergency Services plan to ask employees to submit fingerprint scans and background information that will be reviewed by the California Department of Justice and the FBI.

Also, the departments will automatically receive information from law enforcement agencies if their employees are arrested in the future.

Adam Ashton: 916-321-1063, @Adam_Ashton. Sign up for state worker news alerts at sacbee.com/newsletters.