Standing Against Injustice

Three years ago, Erick Little bravely took a stand against injustice. Today, he is part of positive change that has already made a real difference in his life and in the lives of other local African-American workers.

When he was just 19 years old, in 1987, Mr. Little was convicted of a drug offense. In 2013, he was offered a job as a bus driver with the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA), subject to a background check. He disclosed the 26-year-old conviction and was assured that it would not be held against him, but the job offer was rescinded anyway. As he recounted, “WMATA sent me, and many others, the message that the first mistake you make is the only thing that matters.” 

eric littleMr. Little had fallen victim to WMATA’s now-discontinued overly broad and unnecessarily punitive policy regarding the consideration of convictions in the hiring process. The policy permanently barred applicants with certain convictions from employment, regardless of the age of the conviction, the unrelatedness of the conviction to the job, or the contributions that the applicant has made to society since the conviction. The policy allegedly had a discriminatory impact on African Americans. Law enforcement and prosecutorial practices in the region disproportionately target people of color, resulting in African Americans being dramatically overrepresented in numbers of people arrested, convicted, and incarcerated. It is one example of the barrage of collateral consequences faced by returning citizens when they try to find a job, place to live, and rebuild their lives.

Mr. Little and a class of African-American applicants and employees who were denied employment opportunities sued WMATA. In November, the class reached a settlement. During the course of the litigation, WMATA adopted a new policy that provides for individualized assessments of job applicants who have criminal records. As part of the settlement WMATA has also agreed to pay $6.5 million to affected class members and to maintain its new policy for at least one year.

Mr. Little is a father-figure and pillar of support for many young men in his community, where he coaches football. One reason he joined this lawsuit was to show his mentees that “past mistakes can be overcome if you are willing to work hard to turn your life around.” Thanks to his courage and tenacity Mr. Little now has the job he applied to four years ago, and many other workers in a similar situation are employed by WMATA as well.

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