Our Fight to Stop Discriminatory Screening Practices at AmeriCorps

Has your employer, school, or volunteer program ever required you to disclose all the medications you are taking – including birth control and antidepressants?  Have you been asked if you saw a counselor or if you visited a hospital in the last five years? 

Shockingly, AmeriCorps requires this information – and many more medical details – of all applicants to the National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC), the federal service program for young people ages 18 to 24.  Even worse, it rescinds offers it has given based on the information it receives, even when the applicant is qualified to serve.

This is what happened to Susie Balcom, who applied to join AmeriCorps NCCC during her last year of college.  With a 4.0 GPA, two successful terms with the state AmeriCorps programand a demonstrated commitment to public service, she received multiple offers from AmeriCorps in April 2017.  She accepted a one-year position to serve as a Support Team Leader, which would require her to coordinate logistics and trainings for corps members from the AmeriCorps office in Mississippi, starting in June.  Thrilled to be able to serve her country, she made plans to move and postponed the start of her graduate studies.   

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But in May, Susie was contacted by an AmeriCorps counselor about the health information form she was required to submit.  On the form, along with listing medical visits for strep throat and dehydration, Susie disclosed that she had gone for three sessions of counseling for anxiety.  The counselor asked her why she had experienced anxiety.  Susie explained that she had been sexually groped by a co-worker several months earlier and that she had sought out counseling to ensure her own well-being.  Susie continued to thrive in her academic and professional life following the incident.  Two weeks later, AmeriCorps notified Susie that she was disqualified from service.

More about the case

We investigated AmeriCorps NCCC’s health screening process and learned that thousands of applicants every year are required to fill out the intrusive and unnecessary health information form.  AmeriCorps NCCC also uses guidelines that discriminate against people with disabilities, including people it regards as having disabilities.  For example, the guidelines state that applicants must be deferred from service if they began therapy for anxiety within the past six months, and this was used against Susie. But people with mental health issues should not be punished when they seek therapy, because they often are fully capable of service.   

Other institutions that engaged in similarly broad health screenings have been found liable for discrimination.  For example, a federal court concluded that the Peace Corps violated the Rehabilitation Act’s prohibition on disability discrimination when it used one-size-fits-all mental health screening guidelines, instead of examining individual circumstances to determine whether an applicant is qualified to serve.  

Courts also have ruled that state bar associations, which grant licenses to attorneys, violate civil rights law when they asked questions like, “Have you within the past five years been treated or counseled for a mental, emotional, or nervous disorder?”  These questions impose burdens on applicants with disabilities that people without disabilities do not endure.  Health inquiries should instead be narrowly tailored to find out whether applicants have an existing condition that would actually interfere with their current ability to participate in the program.

Today, we filed a complaint on behalf of Susie with the Corporation for National and Community Service, the federal agency that operates AmeriCorps NCCC.  We are calling on the agency to recognize that its health screening process is discriminatory and must be changed.  In the meantime, we want to hear from other AmeriCorps applicants who believe they were treated unfairly in the health screening process.  Please share your story with us. 

AmeriCorps NCCC does important work around the country. But to truly empower communities, AmeriCorps must give everyone a fair chance to serve.

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Anonymous

I applied for AmeriCorps and was offered the position, then a packet was mailed for me to fill out. In it was a medical form that stated "this information is our file only and not used to determine employment". I filled it out and put that I had a disability from my service in the Army, but that I am completely capable of doing the work for the position I was offered.

I got a call a couple weeks later saying they required a doctor's note saying I could do the work or I couldn't have the position. Going against what the form itself said.

Anonymous

I was let go by an Americorps qualified position/partner no two days into their program after going to training in Nevada for extreme fatigue and sleepiness. They were to concerned about their image and no one offered to help after I filed a complaint and went to get medical help. This was after they told us all about their wonderful Human Resources and employee rights programs.

Anonymous

We're you sleeping through training?

Anonymous

While this is true it's important to remember the NCCC is a very rigorous mentally draining program, your spending 10 months living with a small group of people, they wanna make sure everyone's able to handle it. From what I've seen americorps does a good job accommodating disabilities

Anonymous

Discrimination has no place in a program meant to serve the nation. It’s not all programs, but if some are not holding themselves to the standards we expect, then CNCS needs to conduct a wider investigation to keep all its programs up to scratch.

I am a two term alum and my experience was nothing short of supportive and caring. My program really took the time to educate my cohort about self-care and the benefits available to us through our health plans (especially coverage for counseling). They scheduled regular check-ins to assess how we were doing in our terms and gave us the space to express how we were feeling. Then they worked with us to find solutions to the best of their ability.

The point is that AmeriCorps has proven techniques to help members with physical and mental issues serve successfully. If programs within AmeriCorps is not practicing these techniques, then they need to be investigated and make it right with those they barred from service. Those people have been hurt when all they wanted was to selflessly serve, and are entitled to restitution and a public apology.

However, we need to also recognize the good AmeriCorps does, and ensure that we discipline the people responsible for discrimination without hurting those who are innocent and merely wish to serve. We all know the damage that public outrage without clear details can do. Don’t hang the program out to dry with broad brushstroke writing. Be clear that this is certain programs behaving shamefully.

Call out the specific programs and demand restitution for those hurt. Every AmeriCorps member and alum will stand behind that. But don’t hurt the programs who aren’t practicing discrimination.

Anonymous

This is absolutely ridiculous and does not explain the screening process NCCC goes through and the stresses Corps Members live under. That ~horrifying~ phone call that the girl got? They asked her yes or no questions about what she thought she could handle. I know because I got that call, like everyone with a history of mental illness does. The counselors at the southern region (both really great humans by the way) give the applicant scenarios that they will experience in their service, such as "can you live and work with the same 9 people 24/7 for ten months?" If you say no, you really don't need to be in the program.
NCCC is incredibly stressful, especially during disaster - which every team right now is doing. If you are not in a healthy mental state you become a danger to not only yourself, but the 9 other people on your team who depend on you. In jobs such as this, where it is extremely necessary for you to be in good health, both physical and mental, screening is required, and it is not considered discrimination.
Why don't you go out and spend ten months with NCCC and see for yourself what the job is actually like, instead of tearing down an amazing national service organization that the current administration is already looking for ways to remove?

Anonymous

Looks like the ACLU is discriminating against other AmeriCorps programs, by lumping up the different facets of the federal program into one. By using AmeriCorps as a broad definition and not specifying that NCCC is a different program underneath that umbrella term of AmeriCorps you are giving a bad name to other AmeriCorps programs. Attacking the name of AmeriCorps in vain like this is threatening the hundreds of amazing programs that provide resources to communities in need.

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