The Electronic Security Association (ESA) is pursuing a law that would give installing firms access to the federal background check database. Although many groups fail each year to gain access to the database, ESAs proposed bill is considered to have strong congressional support. ©iStockphoto.com/Courtney Keating
WASHINGTON — The Electronic Security Association's (ESA) top legislative priority this year is to secure passage of a law that would permit installing security contractors to access the FBI's federal background check database.
Two versions of the "Electronic Life Safety and Security Systems Federal Background Check Act of 2011" are up for consideration in Congress. In the Senate, S. 1319 was introduced in June by Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer, R-Mo., introduced H.R. 1331 in the House in April.
The legislation would direct the Attorney General to permit installing security, monitoring and fire/life-safety companies to access criminal history records from the National Crime Information Center (NCIC).
"Congress must authorize private industry groups to be able to have that access. That is why this bill is needed," says John Chwat, ESA's director of Government Relations. "The last group to [gain authorization] was the private security guard industry almost seven years ago."
ESA has lobbied for about three years to pass similar legislation, which has stalled each time. The association maintains industry employees should undergo criminal background checks, considering the thousands of workers who each day enter homes, schools, businesses, critical infrastructure and other sensitive sites.
Although some states do require background checks to license industry employees, about 18 states have no such requirement. Access to the NCIC would be an especially valuable tool for an employer in those states that don't require an employee to be licensed, Chwat says.
"For example, in Vermont or Ohio or Pennsylvania where the industry is trying to get licensing at the state level, this background check component permits them to be able to use the federal approach in securing passage of their state licensing bill," he says.
Allowing direct employer access to the NCIC has long proven difficult. Each year various private groups and industries lobby and ultimately fail in their legislative efforts. Industries that have been successful include banks, flight schools and armored car companies.
The Department of Justice [DoJ] and privacy advocates have raised concerns that opening the NCIC more broadly could result in discriminatory decisions by employers that deny a job candidate unfairly.
"A lot of people have this idea that the NCIC is similar to the computer on the Starship Enterprise — that perfect knowledge of everything," says Les Rosen, president of Employment Screening Resources (ESR), a San Francisco-based background screening company. "There are problems with the database's completeness and accuracy. It's not nearly the solution you think."
Instead, employers should look to the NCIC as a supplemental piece to a larger, more comprehensive hiring process, Rosen says. It starts with a well-written application that an employer carefully reviews for red flags. For example, did the job candidate sign the application or fill in the box indicating whether or not they have a criminal record?
Failure to contact previous employers is the most common mistake - one that can lead to liability issues - companies make when interviewing job candidates, says Rosen, who authored "The Safe Hiring Manual: The Complete Guide to Keeping Criminals, Terrorists, and Imposters Out of Your Workplace."
"Should you hire someone who turns out to be dangerous, unqualified, unfit or dishonest, your defense is that you exercised due diligence. It verifies the accuracy of the application," he says.
Rosen also advises firms to ask pointed interview questions, such as does the applicant have any issue undergoing a background check or will former employers say anything negative about them?
"Those are powerful questions that will cause most people to self-reveal information thinking you may get it anyway," he says.
Although renewed lobbying efforts to gain access to the NCIC are still to play out, Chwat says his goal is to get legislation passed by the end of year. ESA's chances are especially bolstered given the support of Sen. Schumer, an influential congressional leader who has a seat on the Judiciary Committee.
"Our sponsor in the Senate is no small guy. We're hopeful of moving the legislation forward, not so much as a freestanding bill but attach it to another bill."