Wondering about background checks work in Wisconsin? Then you’re in the right place! In the article below, we’re going to cover everything you need to know: relevant federal and Wisconsin legislature, how to get a background check, what they tend to include, and much more.
General and legal information on background checks in Wisconsin
Background checks in Wisconsin are common in many contexts. Some of these include pre-employment screens, or screening for would-be renters or those interested in working in sensitive jobs (such as with children), among others. That said, the use of such checks is subject to unique restrictions, some at the federal level and others at the state level.
The law is particularly strict in terms of using background for job screening purposes, specifically. For instance, hiring and other job-related decisions cannot be made based on past criminal records, with some exceptions. What follows is an overview of the most relevant laws to background checks in Wisconsin.
Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA)
The federal Fair Credit Reporting Act, or FCRA, enacted in 1970, imposes unique restrictions on how employers can request and use background checks for the screening of potential employees. First and foremost, the Act requires that any employers wishing to run a background on an applicant obtain that person’s prior written consent.
Additionally, the employer must inform the applicant as to how his or her information is likely to be used. If a background check subsequently comes back with information that may influence an employment decision on the employer’s part, the employer must inform the applicant of their intention to disqualify him or her on the basis of the report results and a second notice when the final decision is made.
The FCRA also requires employers to take reasonable steps to ensure that any information they access when conducting a background check is accurate and up to date. Applicants whose checks come back with hits can also dispute the results, in which case an investigation must be carried out to verify the information, with the employer and applicant informed of the findings.
Wisconsin State Law
Wisconsin Fair Employment Act
The Wisconsin Fair Employment Act (WFEA) specifically prohibits employers, employment agencies, licensing agencies, and labor unions from discriminating against applicants on the basis of arrest and/or conviction records. It also protects the right of victims of such discrimination to file a complaint under the Fair Employment Law, in which case they are protected from retaliation.
Wisconsin employers are also prohibited from soliciting information related to criminal records on application forms, with some exceptions. Some of the situations in which employers are legally protected by state law if they choose not to hire an applicant on the basis of a criminal record include:
- Applicants with a charge or charges that substantially relate to the job applied for (both past and pending).
- Specific jobs where a criminal record may be disqualifying, such as positions involving security or access to private and sensitive information.
- Positions that require bonding for which an applicant is ineligible due to his or her criminal record.
It should be stated that even in cases involving pending charges, Wisconsin’s Department of Workforce Development advises employers to hold off on any final decision until the related case is resolved and to inform the applicant that he or she may wish to submit a new job application after this has occurred.
The same department also recommends that employers clarify that convictions are only considered as they relate to the job being applied for, and that, as such, they are not automatic disqualifiers for employment. Lastly, employers are required to post a copy of the Wisconsin Fair Employment Law in a conspicuous location on the company premises.
Wisconsin Open Records Act
The Wisconsin Open Records Act, enacted in 1981, secures the right of members of the public to collect and assess information found in public records. This includes records held by all branches of government, which are required to respond to any requests for information in a timely fashion.
The law also contains clauses that dictate how to handle complaints and disputes over public records requests, including penalties for requests that are handled improperly. For instance, public records officers can face fines of up to $1,000 for mishandling a request. The law also specifies that non-Wisconsin residents can access public records in the state.
Wisconsin “Ban the Box” Laws
Wisconsin also has some “Ban the Box” regulations at both state and local levels. The state-level regulations prohibit all state government employers from asking applicants to public jobs about their criminal record until an applicant has already been cleared for consideration for the role on offer.
Some local laws add additional restrictions on top of state and federal legislation. For example, throughout Milwaukee County (including the city of the same name), applications for public jobs cannot solicit information about criminal history. Another example is Dane County, Wisconsin, which bans such questions on applications for jobs with employers and contractors holding at least $25,000 worth of contracts per year.
How do I get a background check in Wisconsin?
As noted previously, employers who wish to conduct a background check on applicants must first inform the applicants of their intention, as well as regarding how the information collected is to be used and obtain their written consent to the check.
Once written consent is obtained, employers can either run their own checks or, more commonly, they may source them out to an investigative reporting agency. Employers can opt for either a fingerprint-based background check or one that uses an individual’s name as the reference. Fingerprint-based checks are more accurate and thorough, but they are also more expensive and obviously limited to people with prints on file.
Independent background checks require that employers know which records they want to access and scan through. This can include things like cross-referencing public records databases with the information an applicant provides and contacting listed references. An investigative reporting agency makes the job a lot easier in that it will be set up to cast a wide net, accessing and cross-referencing information from multiple sources at local, state, and federal levels.
In some cases, people may wish to run background checks on themselves. This may be with a mind to preview what employers are likely to see when they conduct their own checks, and/or to verify that the information they find is accurate and up to date. Remember that there are ways to dispute inaccuracies or outdated information under the FCRA and the Wisconsin Open Records Act.
Just as in the case of employers, individuals can also access records individually. Wisconsin’s state agencies differ in the exact rules that cover public records requests, but generally, these requests are made using a person’s name and basic contact information, such as physical and email addresses, phone numbers, etc.
To access criminal records specifically, an individual must go through the Wisconsin Department of Justice Crime Information Bureau. Searches through the bureau require that a user account be created on their website. The bureau maintains over a million records from law enforcement, DAs, court clerks, and municipal courts across the state. Individuals can also access public information found in inmate records through the Wisconsin Department of Corrections.
What shows up on a background check in Wisconsin?
Depending on the context, background checks can screen many different types of information, on the basis of which the results will vary. Some of the more common types of information that show up in background checks include criminal, employment, and financial history. In pre-employment screens, these checks can also look into a person’s education and credentials.
When a background check results in a hit that brings up a criminal record, results can include things like:
- Criminal charges
- The offense level of the charges
- The date of filing
- The case’s disposition and disposition date
- Sentencing information
Court records for an individual may contain information such as:
- Court minutes
- Case files and dockets
- Court orders and judgment documentation
- Jury and witness records
Inmate records can include things like:
- Mug shots
- Inmate numbers
- Facility transfer information
- Custody status
What do employers in Wisconsin look for when running background checks?
Employers, landlords, and others can look for a variety of information on subjects of background checks. This typically includes verification of personal information and other details that can speak to a person’s character.
For employers, this may include verifying certificates, degrees, and other qualifications listed in a candidate’s application. They may also check an applicant’s credit history, driving records, and other information that sheds light on his or her character.
Obviously, most background checks will also look at an individual’s criminal history, should one exist. Checks that access the Wisconsin Department of Justice Crime Information Bureau can come back with things like arrests and charges, court details, and prosecution and sentencing information.
How far back do background checks go in Wisconsin?
Wisconsin is one of a number of states that effectively allow checks to report on criminal records going back an indefinite amount of time. This even includes cases with not guilty verdicts.
That said, employers are limited by different laws as to what they can use as the basis for so-called adverse action and how they can use it. For instance, the FCRA restricts the consideration of non-convictions to seven years.
As mentioned previously, Wisconsin employers considering taking adverse action on the basis of findings from a background check must also be able to show that specific criminal history is detrimental to the position applied for. There are also some local restrictions that vary from place to place. For instance, the city of Madison limits the consideration of convictions to three years.
How long do background checks take in Wisconsin?
The duration for background checks in Wisconsin depends on the method used to carry them out. The state, it should be noted, does not have any specific time requirement for state officials to respond to a records request, though the Wisconsin Open Records Act does stipulate that they should respond within a reasonable timeframe.
Typically, state checks will come back within a few days, with some non-fingerprint-based searches taking only minutes. Fingerprint-based checks, on the other hand, can take up to 10 days.
There are obviously many factors that can affect how long a background check takes. For example, independently conducted searches can involve sifting through seemingly endless public records, and contacting numerous state or federal agencies can involve multiple delays. This is one of the main reasons investigative reporting agencies can represent a good cost to benefit ratio, as they cut out all the legwork involved in records searching.
It is important to state that court and agency closures related to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic are likely to cause additional delays in processing records for background checks.
How long do background checks for a gun take in Wisconsin?
People who wish to purchase a firearm from a federally licensed firearms dealer in Wisconsin are subject to a background check prior to the sale. Wisconsin is a point of contact state for handguns only, meaning the state runs its own checks for such sales via the Wisconsin Department of Justice. For rifles and shotguns, the search is run through the FBI (see more below).
Since 2015, there is no longer a mandatory 48-hour wait period as long as a dealer receives an approval number from the DOJ. In cases where the initial check request fails to determine an individual’s eligibility to purchase a firearm, the DOJ has a maximum of five days to notify the dealer of the final results of the background check.
Private firearms sales in Wisconsin do not require background checks.
What is an FBI background check?
Some employers, like federal agencies or other companies working with or for the federal government, can require an FBI background check in addition to or in place of a standard background check.
These checks are similar in nature but look into all of an individual’s interactions with any law enforcement agencies sharing information with the FBI database. The results of FBI background checks can include arrests not leading to indictments or convictions.
FBI background checks use fingerprints, which must be taken by an agency recognized by the FBI. Upon receipt of the prints, the FBI checks them against its Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System (IAFIS), which maintains fingerprint records from law enforcement and immigration agencies. They may also have prints on file from past pre-employment screens. The IAFIS checks records tied to prints taken in both criminal and non-criminal contexts.
What are some common red flags on Wisconsin background checks?
Though not always a dealbreaker, a criminal record is not usually what employers, landlords, and others are hoping to find. It is also worth noting that if a company hires a known criminal who later engages in additional criminal activity, the company may be held liable for this activity.
If you have a criminal history, it may be a good idea to find out what potential employers, landlords, etc. are likely to see if they run a background check on you. This can help you decide how to handle the situation proactively.
For example, you may wish to bring the information up along with an explanation, even if an employer doesn’t ask about it. Whatever you do, be honest.
On-again, off-again job history
Be aware that an employment record with gaps or multiple short periods of employment can be a red flag to an employer. This is because it can make you look like you are unreliable, tough to work with, or simply noncommittal vis-à-vis employers.
Individuals with such an employment history should think of a reasonable explanation for any irregularities, or perhaps omit jobs that did not last long from their application.
Missing and/or irrelevant experience
Whenever applying for a job, you should always research the position and the relevant company and create a resumé that speaks to the job’s specifics. Employers will not be impressed by irrelevant experience unless it somehow provides insight into your character as a professional.
You also want to avoid submitting too little or no work history at all. Even if you are just entering the job market, make sure your resumé contains as much relevant experience as possible. If necessary, include things like volunteer work, internships, or even hobbies – so long as they are relevant.
Inconsistent and/or dishonest information
If you are considering exaggerating or flat-out lying on an application, you had better think again. Inconsistent or false information is easy enough to weed out with background or even reference checks, and will almost certainly disqualify you from consideration for any job and maybe even as a tenant.
Rather than falsifying or exaggerating details that you think will make you stand out as a candidate, stick to the truth, but be thorough and compelling in how you represent it.
Also, be sure to pick your references carefully. They should be people who can objectively vouch for your professional and personal traits. Avoid listing friends or family, as employers well may follow up your references and ask them about your relationship.
Where can I get a free background check?
While there is no option to run a comprehensive one-stop background check for free in Wisconsin, there are quite a number of public records that are free to access. Obviously, you will need to know which of the multitude of records available you want to search specifically and to take the time to access them one by one. The following are some solid places to start.
- State and local court records: Most court records are considered public records. You can access records from circuit courts, courts of appeals, and even supreme courts using basic identifying information. The more info you have, the easier it will be to locate relevant records. A good option for searching these sorts of records is the Wisconsin Court System’s case search feature on its website. You can also go to a court physically to request records.
- Federal court records: You can use the PACER database (short for Public Access to Court Electronic Records) to search federal court cases. Though not free, the service costs a mere 10¢ per page. Another option is NETR Online, which offers access to state and county records throughout the country.
- Sex offender records: The Dru Sjodin National Sex Offender Public Website is available for free to help the public access information on registered sex offenders.
- Other information: Lastly, there is always the possibility of conducting a classic web search. Such queries can sometimes yield more information than you might think. This can include past and current contact details registered to an individual’s name or business, employer and education histories, marriage and divorce records, and much more. You can flesh this out by scanning social media, including professional networks like LinkedIn.