ANNAPOLIS, Md. – It's hard enough to find a job in this economy, and now some people are facing another hurdle: Potential employers are holding their credit histories against them.
Sixty percent of employers recently surveyed by the Society for Human Resources Management said they run credit checks on at least some job applicants, compared with 42 percent in a somewhat similar survey in 2006.
Employers say such checks give them valuable information about an applicant's honesty and sense of responsibility. But lawmakers in at least 16 states from South Carolina to Oregon have proposed outlawing most credit checks, saying the practice traps people in debt because their past financial problems prevent them from finding work.
Wisconsin state Rep. Kim Hixson drafted a bill in his state shortly after hearing from Terry Becker, an auto mechanic who struggled to find work.
Becker said it all started with medical bills that piled up when his now 10-year-old son began having seizures as a toddler. In the first year alone, Becker ran up $25,000 in medical debt.
Over 4 1/2 months, he was turned down for at least eight positions for which he had authorized the employer to conduct a credit check, Becker said. He said one potential employer told him, "If your credit is bad, then you'll steal from me."
"I was in a deep depression. I had lost a business, I was behind on my bills and I was unable to get a job," he said.
Hixson calls what happened to Becker discrimination based on credit history and said his bill would ban it.
"If somebody is trying to get a job as a truck driver or a trainer in a gym, what does your credit history have to do with your ability to do that job?" Hixson said. He said he knows of no research that shows a person with a bad credit history is going to perform poorly.
Under federal law, prospective employers must get written permission from applicants to run a credit check on them. But consumer advocates say most job applicants do not feel they are in a position to say no.
Most of the bills being proposed this year resemble laws in Hawaii and Washington that prevent employers from using credit reports when hiring for most positions. The laws contain exceptions in cases where such information could be relevant to the job — for example, if the person is applying to work in a bank or an accounts-payable office.
On a national level, Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., introduced a similar bill last summer in Congress, where it is still bottled up in committee.
Even though more companies are using credit checks, only 13 percent perform them on all potential hires, according to the Society for Human Resources Management's most recent survey. Mike Aitken, the group's director of government affairs, said a blanket ban could remove a tool employers can use to help them make good hiring decisions.
Aitken pointed to a 2008 survey by the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners that found the two most common red flags for employees who commit workplace fraud are living beyond their means and having difficulty meeting financial obligations. The same survey estimated American companies lost $994 billion to workplace fraud in 2008.
Aitken said someone who cannot pay his or her bills on time may not be more likely to steal, but might not have the maturity or sense of responsibility to handle a job like processing payroll checks.
In Maryland, where the state Chamber of Commerce opposes a bill banning most credit checks, employers at a recent legislative hearing said they are not interested in applicants' credit scores.
Instead, they said, they are concerned about things like debt collections and legal judgments rather than poor credit because of medical bills or school loans. They also said companies give job applicants a chance to explain their credit problems.
Last year California lawmakers voted to curb the use of such checks, but Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed the bill under pressure from Chamber of Commerce leaders who called it a "job-killer."
But Maryland Delegate Kirill Reznik, who drafted the bill being considered in his state, said people struggling to get jobs need help.
"We are in the great recession and this creates a vicious cycle," Reznik said. "People lose their jobs, that naturally precipitates them getting behind on bills, their credit scores go down, they are trying to find a job to pay off the bills, and employers won't hire them because of their credit score."
Maryland public school employee Jen Harwood said running credit checks on job applicants "perpetuates the divide between the haves and the have-nots."
"If you continue digging into people's past and not looking into what people have to give today, you are making a bigger divide," Harwood said.
Consumer advocacy groups are also lining up behind the legislation, pointing out that credit reports can contain inaccurate information.
Becker, the Milton, Wis., resident with bad credit, has found work dismantling cars at an auto recycling company that did not ask to run a credit check. He worries, though, about friends in the auto industry are looking for work and coming up empty-handed because of credit problems.
"It just seems like once you fall behind, you're behind," he said. "It's really hard to get back on the right financial track."