Merced County officials: Background checks not performed for all employees

rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.comMarch 7, 2014 

— Recent high-profile incidents involving Merced County employees have sparked questions about the county’s use of background checks to screen new hires.

Merced County officials confirmed Friday that criminal background checks are not conducted for all prospective employees. Instead, the county checks a candidate’s criminal background only for positions that require such checks by state law. Employees who work with children, seniors, or people with physical or mental disabilities, and those who transport people impaired by drugs or alcohol, are required to be screened before employment.

With the exception of law enforcement and public safety officials, that boils down to about 52 Merced County positions that are subject to background checks, including librarians, nurses, social workers and educators, to name a few.

“The law gives general criteria and that’s what we follow,” Merced County Human Resources Director Marci Barrera said, adding there have been recent discussions about doing more background checks, possibly to include all employees.

“There has been a desire from some departments to background check every (employee) classification within the county,” Barrera said. “It’s something we look at on an ongoing basis.”

If Merced County ran a background check on all its employees, it would join the ranks of neighboring Stanislaus County, which has conducted background checks on its 3,900 employees for more than 30 years.

“I think we see the value in ensuring the applicants don’t have any disqualifying information,” said Nancy Bronstein, deputy executive officer for Stanislaus County. “It doesn’t mean we’re not going to hire somebody because of a conviction from long ago, but it just helps us make an educated hiring decision.”

The city of Merced runs fingerprints and background checks for all city staff, regardless of the position. “We are representing Merced and the community and we want to have good representatives on behalf of the city,” said city spokesman Mike Conway.

As in Merced County, Fresno and Madera counties check the backgrounds only of employees who work with children or other vulnerable populations. “I can imagine it has to do with the cost, time and the implication,” said a Fresno County human resources official, who declined to give her name. “With a county our size, with close to 7,000 employees, where do you start?”

Madera County Human Resources Director Adrienne Calip said the policy applies to certain employees in a pool of 1,100 county workers. “It’s based on job duties, the majority of people who work with children,” Calip said.

A background check costs Merced County about $52 per applicant, said county spokesman Mike North. However, several Merced County department heads said they see the value in running background checks for all county workers.

“I think we should check everyone,” said Robert Morris, Merced County director of the Department of Workforce Investment. “Most companies do background checks for everyone. It’s not to be an invasion (of privacy), but it’s the employer doing their due diligence, and it’s also for safety reasons.”

Merced County Treasurer-Tax Collector Karen Adams said she advocated background checks for all employees in her department more than five years ago. “Clearly, in my office, I thought it was necessary,” Adams said. “We handle the money in the county and there’s an inherent risk of fraud and embezzlement.”

The union representative for Merced County employees shared a different point of view, saying the county has enough measures in place to identify those employees that have issues in their background.

“To spend that kind of money to do a check on that number of people, the vast majority who haven’t done anything, it’s invasive and a poor use of county resources,” said Kristy Waskiewicz, a business agent with Local 2703 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union.

Other county leaders agree with Waskiewicz, and advocate keeping the policies the same. Some said background checks won’t stop problematic employees from slipping through the cracks.

“I think background checks are a good thing to screen out some really egregious things that are related to a particular job they’re applying for, but you can’t catch everything,” said Human Services Agency Director Ana Pagan.

Merced County Public Works Director Dana Hertfelder agreed. “Unfortunately, there’s always a few bad apples, and they seem to slip through no matter how tight a control you have over background checks or anything else,” Hertfelder said. “I think background checks for every single position in the county could be difficult and take a lot of time and resources.”

Public Health Director Kathleen Grassi said it’s not a necessity for her department. “In this department I don’t see it as necessary for all of our staff,” she said. “We don’t have a lot of employees that have direct contact with patients or children.”

Mark Hendrickson, Merced County director of community and economic development, said common practices such as calling references, using probation periods and conducting multiple interviews help ensure the right people are hired.

“We’ve got more going right than wrong,” he said. “Somehow or other, the processes have worked more than they haven’t for the 2,000 employees of the county.”

Sun-Star staff writer Ramona Giwargis can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or rgiwargis@ mercedsunstar.com.

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