Employee privacy rights at centre of background check dispute

Ontario public-sector unions team up to oppose stringent background checks

Several Ontario public-sector unions have teamed up to oppose stringent background checks that the province intends to impose on employees working with identity documents.

The province’s Management Board Secretariat announced late March that it intends to introduce new background check measures for about 2,000 employees working with drivers’ licenses, health cards and birth certificates, as well as certain information technology employees. The government is attempting to protect identity information from terrorist and other threats.

The background checks would include a criminal check, a credit check, and a check to see if workers are “known to police.”

The measures were to take effect in April, but the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) brought the case to the Grievance Settlement Board and won an “interim relief.” A hearing has been scheduled for September.

Joining forces with OPSEU are the Ontario Crown Attorneys Association, the Association of Law Officers of the Crown, the Association of Physicians and Dentists in the Public Service, and the Association of Management, Administration and Professional Crown Employees of Ontario.

“The measures that the government proposed are very, very intrusive. We’re all in favour of greater security, as some of our members are correctional officers and court officers who stand to benefit from greater security,” said Randy Robinson, spokesperson for OPSEU.

But what the unions oppose, he said, are arbitrary measures, particularly the credit checks. In the government’s reasoning, “a satisfactory credit rating will indicate that employees or prospective employees have no serious financial circumstance that might make them vulnerable to using sensitive, private identity information for personal financial gain or to be put in a position to be coerced into providing confidential identity information,” government representatives told the Grievance Settlement Board.

Julie Rosenberg, spokesperson for the Management Board Secretariat, said it’s still to be determined what is a “satisfactory credit check.” She added that these measures were meant to improve overall government security, and some 18,000 employees already have to undergo security checks, including provincial police, teachers and health-care workers who work with children.

What she wasn’t able to clarify — and the unions want to know — is what happens to employees who don’t pass the security checks. These employees would not be able to remain in those positions where they have to work with the identity documents, said Rosenberg. But it would be up to the individual ministries to determine whether the employees would be transferred to another position or be terminated.

Employee background checks are becoming an issue as government and business look to tighten security.

Although OPSEU is fighting Ontario’s security measures, Teamsters Canada is currently exploring ways to bring in background checks for its truck-driver members. The measures being considered would include biometrics, including fingerprinting or iris scanning.

The hope is these pre-screening efforts would effectively reduce the burden of onerous security checks for truck drivers at border crossings, said François Laporte, director of government affairs with Teamsters Canada.

“We understand that the world has changed since you-know-what on you-know-when, and some people simply have to give up a bit of their privacy. The auto-parts industry is increasingly operating with the just-in-time concept, and when a truck is stuck at the border, the impact on our members is enormous.”

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