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Fair expands employee background checks, but state politician urges checks for all

Crowds have swarmed the gates at the Washington State Fair since opening day Sept. 5, as they do annually for the 17-day event.

By the end of the fall fair, officials anticipate more than 1 million people will have visited the Puyallup fairgrounds, which attract guests and workers from all walks of life.

Some parents say they feel safer bringing their kids into the bustling crowds this year, knowing that more seasonal workers were subject to criminal background checks.

The expanded policy comes a year after three Level 1 sex offenders — those least likely to reoffend — were fired from their jobs as ride operators after Funtastic learned of their past crimes.

But a state representative from Camas says the Washington State Fair and others like it can do more to keep families safe.

Republican Rep. Liz Pike can’t believe the state doesn’t require sweeping background checks for all fair workers, given a host of incidents at fairgrounds around the Pacific Northwest and nationwide.

She’s trying to change that by drafting a bill that will be introduced during the next legislative session in January. Republican state Sen. Ann Rivers also plans to draft a companion bill.

If it makes it to Gov. Jay Inslee’s desk, the new law would add Washington to a short list of states that require criminal background checks for employees at fairs, big and small, statewide.

The proposed change could significantly affect the Washington State Fair, which employed about 1,500 people last year.

Pike and other fair managers say beefing up background checks is the right thing to do, despite the challenges that go with it.

DOUBLE THE CHECKS

Before the start of this year’s Washington State Fair, about 925 workers were checked for past felony charges. That total combines the fair’s own workers and those employed by Oregon-based Funtastic, the company that operates rides and games.

The number of workers screened this year is more than double the number from 2013, when about 400 of 1,500 employees were checked. Fair spokeswoman Karen LaFlamme said staff is still working to determine how many employees are working at the fairgrounds this year, but noted that hiring was down.

The increase in background checks was due to a policy change by Funtastic.

In 2013, one-third of the company’s ride operators — those working in SillyVille, which caters to young kids, and a sample of other midway workers — were subject to background checks. None of the game operators — about 500 people last year — was screened.

Additionally, the fair performed about 200 background checks on its employees who worked closely with the public, such as greeters and face painters.

This year, all Funtastic workers operating rides and games were checked, and the fair increased the number of its own employee checks by about 75.

A second, more comprehensive check was also performed on all SillyVille workers and a sample of other midway workers. That included looking for a record of other criminal activity and arrests.

Now, LaFlamme said, Funtastic is one of the few carnival operators in the country to do background checks on all its employees.

“They’re really being proactive,” she said.

Despite the increased security measures, LaFlamme said families still need to exercise good judgment when visiting the crowded fairgrounds, as they likely would anywhere else.

“Parents still need to be diligent,” she said.

Fair CEO Kent Hojem said the policy change builds on the fair’s effort to maintain a safe environment.

“Anything we can do to make this place safe for our fair guests is a positive,” he told The News Tribune last week. “We value safety above all else.”

The fair is a leader in prioritizing safety, said Scott Engle, spokesman for Puyallup police, who are in charge of fair security.

Engle recently took his two young children to the fair. He said improved safety measures, which included random bag checks at all entrance gates, further increased the fair’s safety effort.

“The fair is a super safe place to be because of the way they run things,” Engle said, adding that the expanded background checks are “a great step to continue to ensure the safety and security of the patrons at the fair.”

FEW REQUIRE CHECKS

Illinois and Massachusetts are the only states in the country that require sweeping background checks at fairs and carnivals.

Pike’s bill would add Washington to that list.

She wants the state to require all fair and carnival workers — including people employed by traveling, contracted carnival operators such as Funtastic — to undergo background checks. The bill would cover fairs of any size, carnivals and other amusement-type events.

“It’s really important that we make sure that the people who are strapping our kids into those rides aren’t convicted child molesters or other types of dangerous criminals,” Pike said.

Her effort was spurred by incidents at various fairs in Washington, most recently one at the Pierce County Fair.

That incident happened Aug. 10, the final day of the fair, when an off-duty employee allegedly tried to lure a 9-year-old girl from a barn at the Graham fairgrounds.

The employee, 50-year-old Bryan McCann, pleaded not guilty to charges of luring and second-degree attempted kidnapping. He awaits trial.

After growing up on a farm and being an active participant in the Clark County Fair, Pike said she wants to preserve that atmosphere that fairs offer.

“Parents have an expectation that when we take our kids to a county fair they’re going to be safe,” she said. “I want that to remain a healthy part of our social fabric.”

But the effort to implement a statewide requirement could face challenges; the most difficult, some sources say, is relying on the honesty of applicants.

So far this year, no one has been fired for falsifying information on applications, LaFlamme said.

But Engle, the police spokesman, said last year that about three to five sex offenders on average are fired from the Washington State Fair each year for lying on their applications.

That happened last year with a carnival worker at the Evergreen State Fair in Monroe.

Fair manager Hal Gausman said a fugitive created a “sophisticated” false identity that slipped past a background check. The man, who worked as a kiddie ride operator, was eventually caught, fired and arrested. Authorities did not believe he victimized anyone at the fair.

“We’re trying to figure out what are the best practices,” Gausman said. “We’re looking at ways to always improve.”

That effort includes screening all employees before fair time. But, Gausman said, fair staffers can only do so much to prevent incidents from happening.

“It’s unfortunate, but people are always trying to figure out how to outsmart the system,” he said.

Another challenge is enforcing the proposed law.

For example, Illinois’ fair background check law has a loophole: It requires state inspectors only to confirm background checks were performed — they aren’t tasked with doing the checks themselves.

Therefore, the law relies on an honor system that carnival operators will properly conduct screening.

Fairs also worry about the finances. Because about 1,000-plus seasonal employees work for Funtastic and the Washington State Fair each year in Puyallup, expanding background checks to cover all workers would be costly, LaFlamme said.

“Who would pay for it?” she said of the proposed legislation.

Pike told The News Tribune she wants her proposal thoroughly vetted so the law can succeed.

She’s especially aware of the financial cost and is working with carnival operators to address their concerns.

“I’m pro-business,” Pike said. “I don’t want to kill their industry.”

HOW FAIRS COMPARE

Sweeping background checks at fairgrounds aren’t unusual. At least two fairs in Washington state already do them.

Bob Johnson is president and CEO of Florida-based Outdoor Amusement Business Association, a trade organization representing the carnival industry.

The group was involved in lobbying the laws in Illinois and Massachusetts. Johnson said he plans to closely follow the similar effort in Washington state.

Requiring all fair employees to undergo background checks is a reasonable expectation, and many fairs around the country already perform sweeping checks, he said.

“We promote, and expect our members to promote, a safe and secure midway experience for their guests,” he said. “We support reasonable legislation to support safety of our guests and our own employees.”

Gausman, the Evergreen State Fair manager, said the Monroe fair has adopted a “broadened” focus. All the fair’s employees, between 300 and 400 each year, are screened.

He said you can never check too many people, and he supports Pike’s proposed state requirement.

“We’re given the trust from people,” Gausman said. “I really want the perception for all fairs that they are a great, safe place to go, not to be nervous about who’s selling you popcorn.”

Other fairs might “grumble” about paying for the sweeping background checks, he said, but they should find a way to make it work because it’s the right thing to do.

“It’s part of doing business,” Gausman said.

Clark County Fair manager John Morrison hires between 140 and 160 employees each year.

“I do a background check on every one of them,” he said.

If they’re handling money, he even checks employees’ financial history, to reduce the risk of fraud.

Morrison, who’s run the fair for about six years and is vice president of the Washington State Fairs Association, said the Clark County Fair policy has been that way as long as he can remember.

“In my estimation, it’s money well spent to make sure the people I hire here are people I want close to young kids,” he said.

Morrison is helping Pike reach out to industry representatives as she drafts her bill. He acknowledges the costs a statewide requirement would create, but thinks the problem could be solved with inclusive dialogue.

“I think her legislation is going to generate some good conversation,” he said. “It will be interesting to see how it plays out.”

SAFE, NOT SORRY

Many fairgoers and employees alike support expanded background checks.

Some workers said they’re fine being screened, if it improves safety, while parents say fair staffers can never be too careful.

It’s important to know who’s working around kids, because Funtastic game operators often work unsupervised, said 19-year-old Jordan Marsh, who was working a game booth last week.

“A lot of times they’re not working with a certain person the whole time,” he said.

The Vancouver, Washington, resident added that it’s important to place the most suitable applicants in jobs that deal directly with the public, and that background checks ensure that happens.

Chris and Crystal Waite of Orting were at the fair last week with their children, waiting to ride the Extreme Scream.

The couple had different opinions on broader background checks.

Chris Waite wasn’t sure expanding them guarantees more responsible ride operators; his wife said the more checks, the better.

“I don’t want a child molester or someone selling drugs working here,” Crystal Waite said.

Frank Zuvela was at the fair with a group of retiree friends. The Seattle resident said conducting fairwide background checks is a good idea: “For a simple reason — safety.”

As for Pike’s proposed legislation requiring background checks for all employees, Zuvela was on board.

“If it came up for a vote, I’d vote for it,” he said.

Jessi Quinn of Renton said she prefers not to assume the worst in people, but running more background checks makes her feel better about bringing her 2-year-old son, Vincent ,to the fairgrounds.

“What harm is it going to do, checking?” she asked. “I’d prefer them to be safe than sorry.”

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