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July 03, 2001
Firings Over Criminal Records Bring Protests
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University of Virginia Medical Center fired nine workers recently, saying they had failed to disclose their criminal records at the time of hiring. But as The New York Times reports, many question the motivation - and timing - of those firings.

Critics accuse the university of making a show of firing the probationary and temporary workers to assuage criticism over the way it handled accusations that a 10th employee raped three psychiatric patients.

The accused worker had a felony drug record. But more important in the view of critics, he had been allowed to retain his job for two weeks after a patient first accused him of rape. The worker, Rudolph Thomas Johnson Jr., has been charged in the rapes of two patients.

Federal investigators, alarmed by the rape charges, served notice that $230 million in Medicare money was in jeopardy. When the hospital promulgated tighter management procedures, the threat passed.

The tighter procedures apparently included firing the nine workers - a move the hospital called warranted, because the workers had not properly disclosed their criminal records.

Yet a local newspaper, The Daily Progress, has found that at least five of the workers did include their felony records on their job applications. The newspaper published an editorial criticizing the university for trying to "control PR damage" in the rape case by being unfair to nine people who had no job protection as probationary and temporary workers.

Most of the fired had committed nonviolent, relatively minor felonies years ago, according to the Labor Action Group, a campus activist organization originally created to press the university to raise the salaries of low-paid workers.

The group has started a citywide petition drive and a collection campaign to support the fired workers, with help from the local chapter of the NAACP.

"We were stunned by management's compounding their own error in the rape case," said Susan Foramen, an Action Group member who is an English professor at the university. "They were attempting to demonstrate they were 'tough on felons.' But morally these are people who have paid their dues."

The university, meanwhile, has announced a new policy of weighing applicants' criminal records before hiring them. The hospital offered to rehire three of the workers while maintaining that the original nine did not make complete disclosure. But most of the workers deny this and have filed a federal civil rights suit against the university.

"They were made scapegoats," said Robert P. Dwoskin, a lawyer for the fired workers, who said the university had previously been more tolerant of former offenders but changed the rules after the rape scandal broke.

Mary Smith, one of the nine workers, had a single felony conviction for writing $200 in bad checks four years ago. She told the Times that when supervisors called her in one day, she thought she was getting a raise. Instead, she was fired from her receptionist's job.

"I enjoyed my job, never hid my record and thought I had fully paid my debt to society," Smith said. "I went home and just cried."

"There's something within me that says I can't sit down about this," Smith said. "I could accept it if it was something I did. But I was fired due to some other person's wrongdoing."

To view the New York Times article, click here. Registration required.
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