It’s always a good idea to start off articles like this with a reminder that background checks are not certain to catch people who might represent a risk. The best they can do is to narrow the field. Those who know there’s a background check may be deterred from applying for the job if they fear detection. But Edward Snowden passed routine checks both to move from one job to another, and then to move up the scale of confidence to gain access to increasingly “secret” data. Coming down the scale slightly, you might remember a man with a criminal record and a history of mental illness was given security clearance to enter the Washington Navy Yard where he killed twelve people. Of course, the Navy itself was quick to point out the vetting process the man went through was not the same as a full security clearance but, when the man is holding a gun, that’s not a significant distinction. Why? Through his employer, he held a valid military ID card, i.e. he had secret clearance with the Defense Department. Two background checks paid for by his employer revealed no issues except a minor traffic violation.
Not entirely changing the subject, companies operating a traditional taxi service in California have to put all their drivers through a Live Scan background check, starting with fingerprints being sent through the FBI and Department of Justice databases.
The taxi companies pay for vetting by the transportation regulatory agencies which are responsible for alerting the taxi companies if one of their drivers subsequently offends. On average, these checks cost about $75. Unfortunately, when the California Public Utilities Commission legalized ridesharing in September 2013, it neglected to specify the same level of background checks for drivers supplied by companies like Uber. As a result, either Uber has not been performing any proper background checks, or has paying a subcontractor peanuts to do the checks for it.
Whatever the reason, there are an increasing number of stories of Uber drivers verbally abusing and/or assaulting the people getting in for a ride. In each of these cases, Uber’s response is the same. It undertakes strict background checks, and does not tolerate any alcohol or drug related offenses shown up in background checks. Unfortunately, this has been proved false, because even when evidence of alcohol-related offenses have been brought to Uber’s attention, it does not routinely dismiss or suspend the driver. The reason for this protective attitude may be the shortage of drivers. Uber and the other ridesharing companies have proven popular and must scale up to deliver the service to more customers. Except not enough people come forward. This puts pressure on theses companies to define background checks at such a level they are unlikely to eliminate anyone who steps forward. So here’s the big question for you. Should a start-up be allowed to sidestep the existing law? If it is, should the regulations then be written in a way that’s more favorable than the traditional taxi services? When it comes to the safety of passengers, any law that fails to give the best chance of protection is politically unacceptable. Even though checks are not infallible, they are better than the current vacuum for ridesharing companies.