WASHINGTON, DC (WUSA9) -- A nationwide crisis... brought home with a class action lawsuit against Metro.
Some 65 million Americans have arrests or convictions that show up on criminal background checks. A disproportionate number of them are African Americans.
Activists sued Metro in federal court Wednesday, alleging Metro is denying workers with old, non-violent convictions a chance at redemption.
"I lost my job in March of 2013," Marcello Virgil, 46, says through tears as the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the Washington Lawyers' Committee and the Arnold & Porter law firm announced the lawsuit against Metro.
Virgil was working as a contract landscaper and custodian for Metro, helping support his five children. His employer knew about his 15 year old non-violent conviction. "I was in desperate need of money to support my family and sold crack cocaine," he says. Virgil served 18 months in prison and got out years ago. "You'll never break the law again?" I asked him. "Never, never, never," he replied.
His boss recommended him for a full time job with Metro. "His friendly personality was contagious, his work ethic raised the productivity of his colleagues," he reads from the letter.
But then came a second background check. "I was told to turn in my keys and my badge and leave Metro's premises." "And had you done anything?" "I'd done nothing but work hard."
Virgil is far from alone. "They went back 22 years and said you're out. You're out," says Tim McClough, who also did landscaping and custodial work for Metro.
Metro's not talking on camera. But a spokesman points past statements by its general manager Richard Sarles denying any wrongdoing and insisting no employee had ever been fired for a criminal conviction prior to getting hired by Metro.
"That's simply wrong," says Matthew Handley of the Washington Lawyers' Committee.
The legal advocates say Metro's violating the Civil Rights Act... and Equal Employment guidelines.
"This was a mistake I made when I was 19, I felt I deserved a chance," says Erick Little, one of the named plaintiffs in the lawsuit. Little is a former Montgomery RideOn driver who had his tentative job offer from Metro pulled after a background check found his 27 year old drug conviction.
If the lawyers can prove Metro broke the law, Little, Virgil, and perhaps 150 other workers, may get another chance.
The advocates say Metro has a right to do background checks, but they say those checks have to take into account the nature of the offense, how much time has passed, and whether the offense has anything to do with their job.