WASHINGTON — The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) filed a lawsuit on Tuesday against a BMW manufacturing facility in South Carolina, charging the plant with discriminatory hiring practices stemming from its criminal background policy. BMW denied the allegations in a statement.

“We have a strong culture of non-discrimination as evidenced by the company’s highly diverse workforce,” read a statement from BMW. “BMW is a global company with employees in more than 140 countries around the world. The BMW plant in South Carolina employs thousands of people and providing a safe work environment is one of the company’s highest priorities.”

According to the lawsuit, the EEOC charges BMW with utilizing a policy that “disproportionately screened out African-Americans” from being hired. Claimants were employees of UTi Integrated Logistics Inc. (UTi), a logistics firm that provided manufacturing support, transportation services and warehouse and distribution assistance to BMW’s Spartanburg, S.C., plant until its contract expired in July 2008.

UTi employees were instructed to reapply for their jobs after BMW hired a new contractor, a process that included a new round of criminal background checks.

When UTi first assigned employees to the South Carolina facility, it screened employees according to its criminal conviction policy, which considered convictions of no more than seven years. The new contractor used BMW’s policy, which has not time limit with regard to convictions. BMW’s policy also doesn’t assess “the nature and gravity of the crimes, the ages of the convictions, or the nature of the claimants' respective positions,” according to the EEOC.   

Eighty-eight employees were denied employment under the new hiring criteria, 70 of which were African-American. A total of 645 employees reapplied.  

According to the EEOC’s lawsuit, BMW violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which EEOC Chair Jacqueline Berrien said “prohibits discrimination against job applicants and employees on account of their race.” 

"Since issuing its first written policy guidance in the 1980s regarding the use of arrest and conviction records in employment decisions, the EEOC has advised employers that under certain circumstances, their use of that information to deny employment opportunities could be at odds with Title VII," she added.

BMW officials said the company “has complied with the letter and spirit of the law and will defend itself against the EEOC’s allegations of race discrimination.”

The EEOC's Charlotte district office filed its lawsuit against BMW Manufacturing Co. LLC with the U.S. District Court of South Carolina, Spartanburg Division.

"The Commission is committed to using public education and informal resolution to address discriminatory hiring practices," said David Lopez, the EEOC’s general counsel.  "When these methods are unsuccessful, the commission will, if necessary, seek redress from the federal courts and ensure equal opportunity for all. This is the latest in a series of systemic cases the commission has filed to challenge unlawful hiring practices."

— Kirsti Correa