In Memoriam: Jacqueline Berrien, Former EEOC Chairwoman

By Roberta Meyers, Director of the National H.I.R.E. Network

It is with great admiration and solemn gratitude that I write today in remembrance of Jacqueline Berrien. The former chairwoman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and associate director-counsel of the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Berrien passed away on November 9 at the age of 53 due to cancer.

Berrien 2015-12-09Reflecting on Jacqueline Berrien’s accomplishments, President Obama said, “She fought hard every day to make real our nation’s promise of equal opportunity for all. . . Jackie’s leadership and passion for ensuring everyone gets a fair chance to succeed in the workplace has changed our country for the better.”

I credit her with changing the landscape around employment law and putting a spotlight on policies that discriminate against people with criminal records.

The President is right. Another great soldier for justice has gone too soon.  I credit her with changing the landscape around employment law and putting a spotlight on policies that discriminate against people with criminal records. She spent her career fighting for fair treatment and equal opportunity for all qualified workers.

In her leadership at the EEOC, she pushed for enforcement actions against employers that had blanket bans against considering workers with any criminal past. These types of policies affect more people of color who come from communities that have been aggressively policed and over criminalized.

She led the EEOC to adopt new guidelines for how employers can use criminal record information without violating the civil rights of workers. The groundbreaking guidelines shifted momentum away from ever expanding use of criminal records in employment and toward a more thoughtful approach that considers other factors reflective of a person’s character and preparedness for the job.

She spoke movingly about the public meetings that led to and informed the content of the EEOC’s updated guidance where people discussed the impact of criminal records, some of them reflecting on their own life stories.

They opened the door for conversations in court rooms, state houses, board rooms, communities, and the media about fair hiring practices and policies that give qualified workers with criminal records an equal opportunity and fair chance to compete for work.

Building on the EEOC’s work on the guidelines, the National H.I.R.E. Network worked with the National Workrights Institute and Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law  to develop Best Practice Standards to help employers comply with the civil rights law and give workers with criminal records a fair chance to compete for jobs.

We were honored that then-chairwoman Berrien participated in our “Best Practices Standards for Use of Criminal Records in Hiring” event where the report was first released in 2013 at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

She took time to address many of the objections raised by the business community and commercial reporting agencies concerning individualized assessments and state and local laws in conflict with Title VII.

I remember her powerful comments well. She spoke movingly about the public meetings that led to and informed the content of the EEOC’s updated guidance where people discussed the impact of criminal records, some of them reflecting on their own life stories. She provided detailed background about Title VII and criminal record screens, Title VII disparate impact analysis, and the agency’s enforcement guidance.

She took time to address many of the objections raised by the business community and commercial reporting agencies concerning individualized assessments and state and local laws in conflict with Title VII. Many of the business leaders in the room said they left with a better understanding and deeper appreciation of the purpose and need for the guidance.

Because of her tireless efforts in confronting discrimination and expanding opportunities for people in need, Legal Action Center is proud to recognize Jacqueline Berrien as a Leader in Action.

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