Business & Tech

Fired drivers allege Amazon’s background checks are discriminatory

(FILES) This file photo taken on December 11, 2014 shows the logo of the online retailer Amazon displayed on computer screens in London. Online giant Amazon has created its first subscription channel, Anime Strike, in an expansion of its streaming television offerings. The on-demand channel, which features Japanese animation shorts and features, will be available for $4.99 to Amazon Prime subscribers in the United States.The new channel made its debut this week as other content providers such as HBO and Showtime begin offering standalone online subscriptions which do not require a cable or satellite subscription. / AFP PHOTO / LEON NEALLEON NEAL/AFP/Getty Images

Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images/file 2014

Eight former Massachusetts Amazon delivery drivers filed class-action discrimination complaints against the online retailer Tuesday, alleging they were unfairly fired because of an overly strict background check policy that disproportionately disqualified black and Latino workers.

Civil rights advocates at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice had publicized the firings last year, hoping public pressure would prompt Amazon to change how it uses background checks. But they said Amazon did not reverse its actions, so the former employees filed formal complaints with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, a required first step before suing a company in court.

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Until last August, the drivers worked for eCom Delivery Services, a subsidiary of Miller’s Express that Amazon hired to deliver packages around Boston. According to attorneys for the drivers, they were fired that month after Amazon instructed the firm to immediately “deactivate” anyone whose background check didn’t meet the company’s requirements.

The attorneys for the drivers said they were performing their jobs without issue and had only minor offenses on their records.

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More important, the attorneys argued, Amazon’s edict to dismiss everyone who fell below a certain threshold — without considering their individual circumstances or reviewing the accuracy of the background checks — is an example of a “bright line” standard that is prohibited under federal employment rules. And because black and Latino people in the United States are arrested and convicted at higher rates than other groups, the policy is essentially a form of discrimination, the advocates said.

“Amazon’s decision to fire them had nothing to do with their ability to perform the job, but was based solely on an overly strict background check policy,” said Oren Sellstrom, the litigation director for the lawyers’ committee, in a statement.

An Amazon spokesman declined to comment specifically on the discrimination complaints, but said that the company’s background check protects customer safety and does not consider “race, gender, ethnicity, religion, or other protected characteristics.”

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One of the fired drivers, Matthew Soler, said he was fired because of a long-ago suspension of his driver’s license, even though the license had been reinstated four years earlier. He said he had been working up to 70 hours a week for Amazon’s delivery contractor prior to his dismissal and had been trusted to train new drivers.

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 must individually review the circumstances of each worker.

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 put any past incidents in context.

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