Oregon Health Authority Considers Background Checks for Community Health Workers

By Michael Klazema on 8/21/2013

The Oregon Health Authority recently proposed a new rule that would require community health workers to pass a criminal background check in order to get their licenses. While this seems like a reasonable idea on the surface, many members of the local community oppose it on the grounds that for some jobs, a certain kind of criminal background can actually be an asset.

Community health workers assist local communities in many ways, including by serving as peer support specialists for individuals struggling to overcome addictions. Naturally, in order to be considered a peer, a person needs to have experience with overcoming addiction themselves. Because addiction and a criminal record often go hand in hand, excluding individuals with criminal records would make it very difficult to find qualified peer support specialists.

Tanya Pritt, the director of YES House in Corvallis Or., expressed concern that the background check rule will effectively sanitize the workforce. Her organization and others like it will be left relying on squeaky clean college grads for all their staffing needs, and the troubled people that they serve will likely find it hard to relate to these workers.

Under the proposed new rule, the background checks would be carried out by the Department of Human Services. This department has notoriously rigid criteria and has been known to fail people based on crimes that are not related to their jobs. Many individuals who testified against the proposed rule at a recent public hearing saw this in practice, having been fired or denied employment based on convictions for minor crimes like shoplifting that had no bearing on their ability to perform the job responsibilities of a peer support specialist.

Rebecca Birnbaum, HR director of Central City Concern, said that she doesn’t think that DHS or the Oregon Health Authority realizes that imposing stringent background checks on companies like hers will prevent them from hiring people who really understand the communities they serve, can relate to individuals struggling with addiction, and be effective in providing aid and support.

Of course, some kind of pre-employment screening is vital for any employer who wants to hire quality workers. And most rehabilitation programs already do some kind of background check on their workers. The difference is that they interpret the background checks more generously than DHS would, taking care to only reject applicants if they have convictions that conflict with the specific responsibilities of the job in question.

This case-by-case approach to reviewing the results of background checks should be applauded, not overruled by the Oregon Health Authority. If the proposed rule is enforced, many certified peer recovery counselors like Dixie Yagle, a recovered addict who’s been arrested more times than she can remember, will be out of a job.


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