Can a minor offense committed decades ago affect your employment? As one Milwaukee woman can now tell you: YES.
Yolanda Quesada was escorted out of the building and fired last week from the mortgage unit position she had held for five years at Wells Fargo. While she claims to have been a good employee and says she has pins, certificates and photos to prove it, her past came back to haunt her.
Her termination came after a background check revealed that she had been arrested for shoplifting back in 1972 and had received a ticket and a misdemeanor for which she was fined and given probation. “I did do the crime. I had just come out of high school,” says Quesada, who apparently stole clothing from a Milwaukee department store. She says that she was one of 12 children and needed work clothing. According to Quesada, she is ashamed of what she did and believes she has paid for her crime and has changed her life. “I think there are more important things in life than something I did 40 years ago,” she adds.
Quesada claims to have had no knowledge that Wells Fargo was making inquiries regarding her background such as the FBI check and states, “I just got the FBI report on Saturday in the mail. Monday, they said ‘you’re fired’. They never let me say what happened, explain myself, nothing.” While she believes it is unfair for a youthful discretion to cost her a job so many years later, changes to banking regulations last year require institutions to run checks on all mortgage team members, including a fingerprint check with the FBI, and take appropriate action if the need arises.
Although Quesada was supposedly a good employee and worked in phone customer service where she never handled cash on the job, according to Wells Fargo spokesman Jim Hines since the company is an insured depository institution they are “bound by federal law that generally prohibits us from hiring or continuing employment of any person who we know has a criminal record involving dishonesty or breach of trust.” As soon as the background check revealed her past offenses, Wells Fargo was evidently left with no choice but to let her go.
Interestingly, the news of Quesada’s firing comes on the heels of the EEOC’s release of their updated and streamlined guidance on the hiring of individuals with criminal records. The new guidelines update data and consolidate prior EEOC policy statements into one document while illustrating the application of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to various scenarios relating to the arrest or conviction history of a current or prospective employee.
In many instances, the EEOC recommends that employers afford applicants the opportunity to explain past offenses on their record before automatically rejecting their application. Quesada, for one, agrees with that theory and thinks she should have been allowed to explain her situation. While there is validity that banking institutions hiring workers are bound by specific regulations and need to exercise caution and sensitivity to potential issues stemming from the hire of employees with criminal histories, there is no concrete time limit indicating when it’s safe to hire an ex-offender. Many employers stick with an arbitrary statute of limitations somewhere between five and ten years.
Since her story went public, many are sympathizing with Quesada and several other former Wells Fargo employees have stepped forward stating that they know what she’s going through and have faced similar firings. Among them, Shavonne Mortonson, who was supposedly terminated for a retail theft case 15 years ago in which someone she was with shoplifted. Even though she didn’t herself actually commit a crime, was never convicted and the case against her was dismissed, she still lost her job.
Mortonson, who says she received performance based raises and bonuses, believes, “We were just discarded with no thought given to whether we were serving our purpose as Wells Fargo employees or if the cases in questions in any way affected our ability to contribute to Wells Fargo.” Yet another former employee fired for a misdemeanor theft conviction says the company knew about it when they hired her four years ago and doesn’t understand if “it was not a liability issue then, why are they making it a liability issue now?”
Wells Fargo contends that they were acting justly based on Section 19 of the FDIC and while the terminations may seem harsh, Hines believes Wells Fargo took appropriate action in following the regulations set in place to “protect the interest of consumers who put their trust in financial service companies.” Additionally, Wells Fargo could be protecting themselves from the costly risk of violation potentially resulting in hefty penalties of fines up to $1 million per day and imprisonment.
Quesada, on the other hand, says that nowhere in the termination letters are those details included. Besides, it appears if Wells Fargo really valued these employees, they could apply for an FDIC waiver to consider the nature of the offense, the offender’s age at the time and evidence of rehabilitation since then. The law does not automatically exclude crimes because they were decades ago, but has been interpreted to disregard civil tickets and misdemeanors that can be shown to be isolated and minor.
While public opinion seems to side with Quesada and the others terminated for instances thought to be long forgotten, it appears Wells Fargo acted appropriately and legally and it does not look good for action against them. Quesada, who is fighting to be reinstated to her position or receive a severance package, says she understands their side, but hopes that by going public, if nothing else, she will help other employees and perhaps a more compassionate screening system will eventually be instituted.