- Grove City, Pennsylvania

January 27, 2014

USIS called an asset to town, but little known of its work

By Michael Roknick
The Herald

GROVE CITY — Residents of this close-knit community of 8,300 that's a little less than an hourís drive north of Pittsburgh, say the town has benefited economically from USIS hirings.

But they agree there's always been a veil of secrecy about the inner workings of the background-check company.

Residents say thereís always been an unspoken rule that USIS employees shouldn't be asked prying questions about their jobs. A hush-hush code permeates among employees.

In essence, USIS is the Area 51 of Grove City.

While cutting hair at his downtown barbershop on Friday, Frank Lapa said USIS employees are regular customers.

"They sure don't go around blabbing about the company," Lapa said.

"You might have one of them say, 'I had a lot of tough cases this week.'  "But you never, never heard anyone talk specifics," Lapa said.

One of Lapa's customers, flooring installer Wayne Lightner, said he did work in one of the company's buildings.

"They had someone following me wherever I went," Lightner said.

Another man getting a haircut, who didn't want to give his name, said his daughter worked at USIS for a couple years and quit after the job became too stressful, due to a quota system to clear background checks off her desk.

He also remembered when a town resident, known for having psychological problems, was found by company employees slumped over against one of their buildings, crying. An ambulance was called to get the woman medical care.

"But a week later a fence was erected at the building to prevent people from getting that close," he said.

Grove City Borough Manager Vance Oakes said the only request the townís ever had from USIS was a request for utility services to be hooked up.

"They are very quiet," Oakes said. "There's never been any concerns or issues addressed to us by them. Obviously, they are a larger employer in the community and weíre happy to have them."

Listed as the town's biggest employer, second only to the General Electric Transportation locomotive engine plant which employs around 1,000, getting a handle on a specific number of USIS employees working in the area has been elusive.

USIS employees work out of the former Cooper Bessemer office in Grove City or the former Ames retail storefront in Pine Grove Plaza in neighboring Pine Township.

Pennsylvania Department of Labor & Industry said based on late 2013 figures, the company is Mercer County's ninth largest employer with between 250 and 499 workers. Labor and Industry didn't have a specific figure on employee numbers, and companies arenít required to publicly release the number of employees they have.

State Rep. Richard Stevenson, R-8th District and a Grove City resident, said the 250 figure sounds way too low. He added the company has never requested anything from him.

"They've been a good community citizen," Stevenson said.

He wasn't sure if the state ever used their services for background checks. But representatives of several state agencies contacted Friday, including the state Inspector General and Attorney General offices, said state police do background checks for them.

The last employment figure Oakes had, from 2006 tax data, showed 658 worked with USIS in the borough. Current tax records weren't immediately available Friday.

Beth Black, executive director of the Grove City Area Chamber of Commerce, said her office was told last year by the company that it employed 1,000 in the area.

However, it's possible that figure may include employees at the companyís Boyers operations located in an former underground mine in Butler County.

USIS employees served on the chamber's board in recent years but no one from the company does so currently, Black said. Company officials never asked the chamber for anything, she said, adding USIS paid for a sign welcoming travelers to Grove City.

A spokesman for the company said he didn't know the employment figure in the area and that the information wasn't immediately available.

Getting hired by USIS isn't a slam dunk, everyone agreed.

"They're really picky. They just don't take anybody," Lapa said.

Company representatives showed up at Lapa's doorstep to conduct background checks on someone he knew seeking employment with the company.

"It was three people who came to talk to me," he recalled. "They were all dressed up in suits. I'm sure they spent several thousand dollars doing this research."

Lincoln Larsen, a Grove City resident getting a haircut at Lapa's shop, said he has several friends who work at USIS. He was used as a reference for them and was asked by the company to fill out a form verifying their work history and personal information such as where they lived.

"They do extensive background checking for the people who do the background checking," Larsen said.

Tom Burdick, owner of Burdick's Men's Clothing store in the downtown, said hearing about the allegations leveled by the Justice Department against USIS came as a shock.

"They employ so many, it's devastating to hear they have this trouble," Burdick said. "For the county and city, it was heartbreaking to hear about that."