Why do NJ Uber drivers need fingerprint background checks?
When Democratic New Jersey Assemblyman Joseph Lagana decided to regulate ride-sharing companies like Uber and Lyft in the state, his said his main priority was making sure the drivers were properly insured.
Two years later, his measure includes a provision for fingerprint background checks, and that is the key sticking point in attempts to regulate the industry. It has led to a fierce public lobbying effort from Uber including help from the United States' former top prosecutor and a threat from Uber to leave the state.
Lagana's measure would only require fingerprint checks if the ride-sharing companies don't use a check approved by the New Jersey state police. An Uber spokesman says that's not acceptable because it would allow the state to replace Uber's check with one requiring fingerprinting.
The state attorney general's office declined to comment on whether the third-party checks used by the companies would meet state standards.
The Assembly measure was approved in committee, while a Senate measure requiring a state police background check without fingerprints will be debated again Thursday.
A committee hearing ended without a vote last week after lawmakers questioned why ride-hailing drivers shouldn't be fingerprinted like Little League coaches and workers in other professions.
WHY NOT FINGERPRINTING?
None of the more than 30 states that regulate ride-hailing companies requires fingerprinting, but it is required in cities including New York and Houston. Uber and Lyft recently left Austin, Texas, after voters declined to overturn a law requiring fingerprint checks.
Supporters say fingerprint checks are the "gold standard" and required of limo drivers in New Jersey. Uber says the fingerprint background checks are flawed and incomplete.
Uber paid $25 million to settle a case brought by prosecutors in California this year after they found 25 drivers who passed Uber's checks despite their criminal histories. One driver had been convicted of felony sexual exploitation of a minor. Lyft settled a case with California prosecutors and paid a smaller fine.
"Their background check seems to have allowed many people to slip through the cracks," Lagana said of the companies. "A fingerprint is specific to a person, you can't get around that. If you committed a crime it's going to come up."
Matthew Wing, an Uber spokesman, said Uber found 46 drivers with a state chauffeur license that applied to work for Uber over the last 2 1/2 years had crimes on their records not flagged by the state check.
"The assembly bill would allow Uber's background check to be replaced with the state fingerprint background check at any time which, as our review found, could lead to drivers passing the fingerprinting check even though they have criminal records our private check would have caught," Wing said.
Uber spent $160,000 lobbying New Jersey lawmakers last year, and recently asked former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to send a letter to lawmakers arguing that fingerprint checks are an unfair way to screen job candidates. Holder's law firm advises Uber on safety matters.
Holder wrote that because of deficiencies in the FBI's database, fingerprint checks can prevent people from getting jobs even if they were never convicted. He said they can discriminate against minorities.
Jason Sharenow, president of the Limousine Association of New Jersey, said he has not seen any category of driver or minority group disproportionately affected by fingerprinting requirements.
"Every limo driver that I've encountered in the state of New Jersey as well as on the national level, nobody has an issue with it," Sharenow said. "They understand it's part of the process and what's required in order to work in the industry.
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT
Democratic State Sen. Paul Sarlo, chairman of the committee debating the measure, said Holder's letter "definitely has some influence, and I think the committee is weighing that letter."
He said regulation is needed and that lawmakers will get to a compromise on the fingerprint issue.
Lagana said fingerprinting should be required unless the attorney general signs off on the industry's background checks.
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