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Landmark $15M settlement in Census Bureau background-check lawsuit

Evelyn Houser, a North Philadelphia grandmother, didn't live to see the end of what she started six years ago.

Houser, who died in September, was a lead plaintiff in the landmark $15 million settlement of a class-action suit this week that may help hundreds of thousands of people with criminal records get jobs.

"My mom was always a determined person," said her son, Cephas Houser. "She would dig, dig, and dig, until she found something that she could fight."

The U.S. Commerce Department agreed Tuesday to pay $15 million to settle the lawsuit, which involves an estimated 450,000 African Americans and Latinos who may have been passed over for jobs because of the Census Bureau's background-check recruiting practices.

As the bureau was hiring for the 2010 census, 9.7 percent of Americans were jobless. Even a temp job as a census taker drew millions of applicants eager to earn $17.75 an hour.

Houser figured that she would easily land one of 1.2 million openings because she held the same job during the 1990 census. She was turned aside.

In 2010, Houser, then 69, became a lead plaintiff in the federal class-action suit against the Census Bureau. The suit alleged the bureau's hiring policies involving criminal-background checks discriminated disproportionately against African Americans and Latinos, because their arrest and conviction rates tend to be higher.

"It's like a slap in the face," Houser said when the suit was filed.

In 1981, nine years before her 1990 stint with the Census Bureau, Houser was a 39-year-old mother of four who had run out of money and food stamps when she found a check as she was taking out trash.

"I went home and told my kids, 'God sent me a piece of paper that says we're going to eat tonight,' " she said in 2010.

Houser tried to cash it and was arrested, but not convicted. Instead, she was enrolled in an alternate rehabilitation program and maintained a clean record.

Her arrest was not a problem in 1990, but in 2010 the Census Bureau sought documentation from everyone with any kind of record.

"Americans must be confident that, if…a census taker must come to their door to count them, we've taken steps to ensure their safety," a census spokesman said when the suit was filed in New York.

It turned out many applicants' records included errors not easily remedied during the application process. Others had no records but were caught up in cases of mistaken identity, plaintiffs' lawyers said in a news conference.

The bureau's only comment Wednesday was to outline terms of the agreement. It admitted no liability.

Of the $15 million settlement, $5 million will be used to help class members clear errors in their criminal records. Industrial organizational psychologists will help the bureau redesign its hiring process to properly evaluate applicants' records. Class members will get advance notice of 2020 census jobs.

"What makes it landmark is the scope of the settlement and the number of impacted individuals," said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law, one of the attorneys in the case.

Clarke estimated 70 million Americans, or one in three people of working age, have some sort of criminal record.

"The fact that we're dealing with a federal government agency sends a powerful…message" to public and private employers that "no job seeker should be automatically" be disqualified because of a criminal record, she said.

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