Business & Tech

Amazon fired dozens of Boston-area drivers — some think illegally

A local civil rights group accused Amazon.com of illegally using criminal background checks as the sole basis for firing dozens of Boston-area delivery drivers, most of them black and Latino.
Lucy Nicholson/Reuters
A local civil rights group accused Amazon.com of illegally using criminal background checks as the sole basis for firing dozens of Boston-area delivery drivers, most of them black and Latino.

A local civil rights group on Wednesday accused Amazon.com of illegally using criminal background checks as the sole basis for firing dozens of Boston-area delivery drivers, most of them black and Latino.

In an open letter to Jeff Bezos, the online retailing giant’s chief executive, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice said Amazon in early August instructed its contractors that provide delivery services to immediately “deactivate” any drivers whose background checks didn’t meet the company’s requirements. The advocacy group claimed a Boston-area delivery contractor dismissed between 30 and 40 drivers as a result of Amazon’s “background check audit,” even though many of those drivers had only minor offenses in the distant past.

Because of longstanding racial inequities in the criminal justice system, the advocates argued, Amazon’s policy effectively discriminated against nonwhite drivers.

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“These were all hard-working individuals with no job performance issues,” said Oren Sellstrom, the group’s litigation director. “One day, they were called in and told they were on a list of people Amazon said had to go.”

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The lawyers group said it may sue Amazon over the firings but will wait for the company’s reply first.

In a statement, Amazon said, “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.”

The company added that its background checks are “focused on job-related criminal and motor vehicle convictions and [do] not consider race, gender, ethnicity, religion or other protected characteristics.”

The chief executive of the local delivery contractor named by the advocates — eCom Delivery Services, a subsidiary of Sharon company Miller’s Express — referred questions to Amazon.

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While employers are generally permitted to run background checks on current and prospective workers, guidelines issued by the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission prohibit companies from using the results in a way that “disproportionately screens out” people of a certain race or other protected group. The agency says companies must demonstrate their standards for hiring or dismissal are “job-related . . . and consistent with business necessity,” and individually review the circumstances of each worker flagged by a background check.

The Lawyers’ Committee alleges Amazon instead used a prohibited “bright line” process, summarily dismissing everyone who fell below its threshold. It’s not clear what threshold Amazon used, the lawyers said. But regardless, they argued, the fired drivers should have been given a chance to review the accuracy of the background checks and put any past incidents in context.

Boston employment lawyer Philip Gordon agreed that firing workers on the basis of a background check without allowing them to dispute the reports’ accuracy is problematic — especially when using reports from online services, which he said frequently include errors.

Firing workers en masse, as the lawyers group has alleged, is problematic, said Gordon, who has represented both employees of large companies and corporate executives.

“If this dragnet swept up individuals whose background checks were inaccurate or whose criminal histories were unrelated to Amazon’s legitimate business concerns about the job function, then that’s a big problem,” Gordon said. “These blanket tests are rarely appropriate.”

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He added employers must be careful to exclude only workers whose criminal records have direct relevance to the job in question. For example, Amazon would be justified in firing someone with a drunken driving or sexual assault conviction from a delivery position that necessitated driving and visits inside customers’ homes, Gordon said; but the company may not be able to fire the same worker from a manual labor job at a warehouse.

Background checks have emerged as a flashpoint amid the emergence of the so-called gig economy, in which firms such as Uber recruit veritable armies of independent contractors they don’t directly employ to interact with customers.

Uber — which has received heavy criticism after several of its drivers were charged with sexual assault— has strongly resisted government-run background checks that include fingerprinting. The company instead conducts its own checks. Separately, Waltham-based Care.com has previously faced lawsuits from several customers who say the company did not thoroughly vet workers they hired through its service, which helps people find household aides.

Sellstrom said it’s understandable if Amazon is fretting over customer safety and its reputation, but he insisted the company must still follow antidiscrimination laws.

Amazon has faced a related challenge to its background checks: In 2015 a Washington state man who said he had been offered a job as a “picker” at an Amazon warehouse sued the company after it rescinded the offer based on a criminal background. The man said the check erroneously included a felony conviction. Court records indicate the case has since been settled.

Wednesday’s accusations represent the second flare-up this year over race and Amazon’s practices in Boston. In April, the company faced withering criticism for excluding the predominantly black neighborhood of Roxbury from a large zone in Eastern Massachusetts where it would begin same-day delivery of its products. The company later reversed course and included those neighborhoods in its delivery zone.

Dan Adams can be reached at daniel.adams@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Dan_Adams86.