You can run but you cannot hide. Know your past before you apply, because it may catch up with you during the background check:::


Richard Eggers doesn’t look like a mastermind of financial crime.

The former farm boy speaks deliberately, can’t remember the last time he got a speeding ticket, and favors suspenders, horn-rimmed glasses and plaid shirts. But the 68-year-old Vietnam veteran is still too risky for Wells Fargo Home Mortgage, which fired him on July 12 from his $29,795-a-year job as a customer service representative.

Egger’s crime? Putting a cardboard cutout of a dime in a washing machine in Carlisle on Feb. 2, 1963.

“It was a stupid stunt and I’m not real proud of it, but to fire somebody for something like this after seven good years of employment is a dirty trick when you come right down to it,” said Eggers of Des Moines. “And they’re doing this kind of thing all across the country.”

POLL: Are banks justified in using mortgage employment guidelines to fire rank-and-file workers?

Big banks have been firing low-level employees like Eggers since the issuance of new federal banking employment guidelines in May 2011 and new mortgage employment guidelines in February.

The tougher standards are meant to weed out executives and mid-level bank employees guilty of transactional crimes, like identity fraud or mortgage fraud, but they are being applied across-the-board thanks to $1-million-a day fines for noncompliance.

Banks have fired thousands of workers nationally because of the rules, said Natasha Buchanan, an attorney with Higbee & Associates in Santa Ana, Calif., who has helped some of the banking workers regain their eligibility to be employed.

“Banks are afraid of the FDIC and the penalties they could face,” Buchanan said.

The regulatory rules forbid the employment of anyone convicted of a crime involving dishonesty, breach of trust or money laundering. Before the guidelines were changed, banks widely interpreted the rules to exclude minor traffic offenses and some other misdemeanor arrests.

New rules have eliminated exceptions for expunged crimes and certain minor offenses and expanded the categories of employees covered, Buchanan said.

Grassley on firings: 'Seems unfair'

Critics point out that big banks have insulated top executives from criminal accountability by signing multimillion federal settlements in which they admit no wrongdoing.

On the same day that Eggers was fired, Wells Fargo & Co., the largest U.S. bank by market capitalization, paid $175 million to the U.S. Justice Department to settle allegations it had targeted black and Hispanic homeowners for sub-prime loans.

“On the face of it, these situations seem unfair,” Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Ia., said in a statement. “The public is right to question why top executives aren’t being held accountable, especially when banks themselves are using federal regulations to justify firing rank-and-file workers.”

Wells Fargo confirmed Eggers’ termination.

“We are operating in an environment where we’re facing new regulations and a heightened level of scrutiny on all our activities,” said Wells Fargo spokeswoman Angela Kaipust. “The expectations that have been placed on us and all financial institutions have never been higher.”

Bank of America has embarked on a similar firing binge to shed any employee convicted of a criminal offense involving dishonesty, breach of trust or money laundering, employment attorneys say.

Bank of America spokeswoman Ferris Morrison said the nation’s third-largest bank by market capitalization is applying the FDIC standards the same way as its peers.

No help for many low-level workers

The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. provides a waiver process employees can follow to demonstrate they’re still fit to work at a bank despite a past criminal conviction, but it usually takes six months to a year to be approved. There is also a process for automatic waiver that works more quickly but is limited to people who were sentenced to less than year of jail time and never spent a day locked up. Eggers, who was jailed two days, doesn’t qualify.

Buchanan says the big banks typically handle the waivers for executives and mid-level employees, but low-level workers like Eggers are given an FDIC phone number and sent packing.

The tighter guidelines have produced a “significant increase” in waiver applications since 2009, said FDIC spokesman Greg Hernandez. He attributed the uptick to more extensive background checks and industry consolidation.

There is no government or industry data on the number of bank firings due to criminal background checks, but the record number of waivers granted this year supports the idea that a steep increase is under way.

The FDIC is on pace to grant 74 waivers — a 252 percent increase from the 21 waivers approved in 2009. The agency was not able to provide any information on annual waiver application data.

American Bankers Association spokeswoman Carol Kaplan said the public clamor for tighter regulation also is responsible for the stricter interpretation of the rules. The safest route is to fire the employee and let them pursue an FDIC waiver.

“There’s no question that there was an appetite for tighter bank regulation as a result of the global financial crisis,” Kaplan said. “The issue with the expanded FDIC section 19 guidelines is that all the discretion is on the back end, in the waiver process, instead of the front end, when compliance personnel are looking at the criminal history of employees.”

Most low-level workers who are fired after a background check don’t bother to seek a waiver, lawyers say. So the actual number of people losing their jobs could be much higher amid one of the most difficult labor markets for idled workers in decades.

Rules hit minorities hard, lawyer says

Yolanda Quesada, 58, of Milwaukee, was fired from her customer service job at Wells Fargo Home Mortgage in May for a 40-year-old shoplifting offense. She’d been working there five years and was making $33,000. She said she stole work clothes as one of 12 children in a poor family.

“They never let me say what happened, explain myself, nothing,” Quesada told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Higbee & Associates first started to see people seeking waiver applications in 2008 and has handled 24 of them since May.

Leonard Bates, an attorney with Newkirk Law Firm in Des Moines, has taken Eggers on as a client to help him navigate the FDIC waiver application process. The firm also represents three other former Wells Fargo workers fired under similar circumstances. Each of their convictions for burglary, shoplifting and welfare fraud is more than 10 years old.

The other three clients are all African-Americans, Bates said. He is concerned that the tighter guidelines are falling most heavily not just on low-level employees, but among minorities raised in poor neighborhoods where they engaged in youthful crimes to meet their basic needs.

“These guidelines are really meant for executives and people who can perpetuate widespread fraud,” Bates said. “They’re not meant for low-level call center employees like Mr. Eggers or my three other clients — all of whom had been doing their jobs quite well for many years.”

Record says no fraud charge

Eggers got a chance to explain himself to company officials after they received the results of his criminal background check from a Florida company called First Advantage. He was fired anyway.

The computerized report obtained by First Advantage listed Eggers’ crime as “fraud.” However, records in the Warren County Courthouse confirmed his account of the 1963 incident. The files say he was arrested for “operating a coin changing machine by false means” and convicted of that charge.

Deputy Brian Voss said the same crime today probably would be listed as misdemeanor theft, if it led to an arrest at all.

First Advantage officials have not responded to numerous requests for comment over the past two weeks.

Sam Walker, a retired University of Nebraska-Omaha criminal justice professor and police accountability expert, said there’s no reason to believe that firing employees for minor offenses committed in their teens protects bank consumers from anything. Eggers and Quesada could work at most law enforcement organizations despite their misdemeanor arrests because police take into consideration how long a job applicant has been a law-abiding citizen, he said.

“The vast majority of people who have some interaction with police as teenagers mature out of it,” Walker said. “To fire someone for something like this that occurred 40 or 50 years ago is just ridiculous.”

Charlene Eggers, Richard’s wife of 43 years, agreed. The firing hurt his pride, she said.

“His only crime was being a teenager and being stupid,” she said. “If that’s a crime we’re all in a lot of trouble.”

Eggers is old enough to retire, but wants to keep working. If not for Wells Fargo, then for someone else.

“I just want my job back,” said Eggers. “I’m having to sign up for Social Security because of this, but I didn’t want to. I had hoped to work four more years. ... I’d prefer to stay busy.”