Not all fair workers undergo background checks

Washington State Fair targets about 200 ride operators who work closely with young children for screenings

Staff writerSeptember 19, 2013 

Azaria, left, and Alayah of Seattle, whose last names were not divulged by the family, wave at Mom on Thursday as they ride Taz’s Twister at the Washington State Fair in Puyallup. The fair said Thursday that all ride operators with the most access to young children undergo background checks.

PETER HALEY — Staff photographer Buy Photo

A week after three sex offenders were fired from the Washington State Fair for lying about past crimes on their job applications, officials are clearing up misinformation about how background checks are conducted and who is targeted.

But one thing is clear: Many seasonal workers aren’t subject to screening at all.

Fair spokeswoman Karen LaFlamme said initial reports miscategorized the process as “random background checking,” and she acknowledged officials could have offered a clearer description.

“It wasn’t meant to mislead,” she said. “There are so many parts and pieces to it.”

The fair actually screens about 200 ride operators — roughly one-third of the total number of ride workers. But there’s nothing random about it; the fair focuses on workers who have the most access to young children.

Puyallup police spokesman Scott Engle said his department thought the checks were conducted randomly until The News Tribune started looking into the process this week.

The Washington State Fair, which ends Sunday, is known for providing short-term employment to hundreds of people, many of whom struggle to find regular work or need extra cash.

The fair works with vendors and contractors, such as Oregon-based Funtastic Inc., to offer rides, games and food to more than a million visitors over 17 days.

At the beginning of this year’s fair, three Level 1 sex offenders — those least likely to reoffend — were fired from jobs operating rides after Funtastic learned of their past crimes.

Engle said police haven’t investigated any criminal behavior at the fair this year. Still, the recent firings have left some fairgoers concerned about spotty background checks that could let some offenders slip under the radar.

Emily Regal, a 36-year-old mother of four from Spanaway, said it isn’t unreasonable for all fair workers to undergo background checks.

“When I got hired, they did a full background check,” she said. “And I work at Home Depot.”

She said ride operators especially should be subject to the same standards “for the safety of not only kids, but everyone.”

Sex offenders hired for fair jobs dealing with children isn’t a new problem, Engle said. About three to five sex offenders on average are fired from the fair each year for falsifying information on their applications.

Engle said there’s no perfect way to pinpoint offenders, but the best practice is screening anyone who’s in close contact with children.

“We’re never going to catch every single (sex offender) 100 percent of the time, because you have those folks who are deceptive,” he said.

Initially, Engle was skeptical of the fair’s alleged random checks. It is ideal to check all ride operators, he said.

But the process as he understands it now is a good start, he said.

Funtastic’s background checking is a two-tier system; employees are asked to disclose criminal history, and some of those applications are screened twice — once by a private company and again by Puyallup police.

LaFlamme said 200 of about 600 ride operators — excluding ride attendants who work lines and take tickets — are targeted for background checks.

Most employees who go through these screenings work in SillyVille, the area of the fair that attracts younger fairgoers who need more assistance getting on and off rides.

Funtastic also screens other employees who raise red flags, such as midway ride operators who volunteer to work at the kids’ rides.

Funtastic’s traveling employees, about 50 to 70 of them, also frequently undergo background checks.

About 500 Funtastic game operators, however, aren’t subject to such screenings.

“They don’t have that one-on-one contact that a ride operator does,” she said.

The list of Funtastic ride operators is then sent to the Puyallup Police Department, which took over fair security two years ago, for a second background check. It identifies sex offenders and those with outstanding warrants both in-state and nationwide.

For the roughly 1,600 employees hired by the fair directly — everyone from custodians to gate greeters to grandstand ushers — the process is very similar.

LaFlamme said the fair screens about 200 of its own employees annually, which includes anyone who works closely with the public.

One challenge is a lack of time to complete background checks before the fair begins.

LaFlamme said it takes about 1ß days for Puyallup police to run the second round of checks, which often overlaps with opening day. That means some employees start work before a full screening is complete.

“The timeline is so close when they do the hiring,” she said. “They’ll do the interviewing and hiring a couple days before the fair starts, and for that reason you have time going against you.”

Engle said the system works despite that flaw.

This year, the first offender was discovered and fired before the fair started, another was released the first day and the third person was let go several days into the fair.

Officials acknowledge the system relies on the honesty of applicants and the likelihood that those who do lie about past crimes fall into the group of workers who are screened.

“I think it is the most effective system that is out there right now,” LaFlamme said. “Every company struggles with the fact that someone could say they are someone that they aren’t.”

Engle said he thinks the fair is on the right track to ensure safety of fairgoers, especially young children.

“They are (checking) folks that are having direct access with kids,” he said. “That, I think, is a really good practice.”

Some Funtastic employees understand fairgoers’ concerns and support improvements to the system.

First-time fall fair worker Karisa Guitron, 19, said her experience with the hiring process was smooth and straightforward.

“The only hard part is waiting in line,” Guitron said Tuesday.

She said fair applicants must show two forms of photo ID and are given more access to jobs if they are repeat employees. They can choose where at the fair they want to work, she said.

But Guitron, who was taking tickets at the Extreme Scream ride on Tuesday, said more precautions should be taken to prevent sex offenders from working with children.

LaFlamme said Funtastic and fair administrators are always looking at ways to improve the safety of visitors. She said more strict background checking could be considered after the fair ends.

“(Funtastic is) closely analyzing it,” she said. “At this point, they feel good when they are able to weed out these individuals early on.”

In the meantime, LaFlamme said one manager oversees every five to six games or rides on the fairgrounds, closely monitoring employees’ conduct.

“They’re constantly being watched,” she said.

Kari Plog: 253-597-8682
kari.plog@thenewstribune.com
@KariPlog

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