Md. lawmakers want to limit credit checks on job seekers

Robert Robinson wanted to be a security guard. Easter Morris tried becoming a cleaning lady. Kyla Whiting sought work at a handbag outlet store.

All say they were denied jobs because their would-be employers learned that they had bad credit.

In response to such stories, state lawmakers now are moving to limit the ability of businesses to run credit checks on job applicants.

"A credit report should not be the measure by which people are judged in terms of whether they can do a good job or not," said Sen. Catherine E. Pugh. "It's almost like an invasion of privacy."

Legislation sponsored by Pugh, a Baltimore Democrat, was approved by the Senate last week. It awaits action in the House of Delegates.

If it becomes law, Maryland would join a growing group of states putting the brakes on employee credit checks. Four states now have limits, and the National Conference of State Legislatures says about a dozen more are considering legislation this year.

Advocates for the poor say the topic is particularly timely. The national recession put record numbers out of work, often impeding their ability to pay bills on time. Now, as the economy slowly improves and businesses are beginning to hire, supporters of the legislation say, those job seekers are being penalized again.

"It's a Catch-22 for people who lost their jobs," said Melissa Chalmers Broome, a senior policy advocate with Baltimore's Job Opportunities Task Force. "We're putting them in the position of never being able to repair their credit report, and never being able to get a job."

Advocates point to many reasons an applicant might have a low credit score — divorce, medical expenses, a death in the family — none of which, they say, has anything to do with the personal responsibility that employers might think they're assessing by running a credit check.

Lawmakers who oppose the limitations say they represent more interference by the state in private industry.

"I think we're trying to get too deeply involved in how business conducts their business," said Sen. John Astle. The Anne Arundel County lawmaker was one of two Democrats who joined the Senate's 12 Republicans in voting against the bill Friday. The legislation passed, 32-14.

Business advocates initially objected to the legislation. But their opposition has eased as lawmakers have broadened the categories of employers who could still run credit checks, and eliminated the rights of applicants to sue over the issue.

"We don't support it, but we don't oppose it," said Jeff Zellmer, legislative director for the Maryland Retailers Association. Still, he described the move as part of a broader "overbearing" climate faced by businesses in Maryland.

Del. Kirill Reznik defended the effort.

"It is the business of the state to make sure there's an equal playing field for all potential employees," said the Montgomery County Democrat, who is sponsoring the House version of the bill.

Some employers, such as banks at which deposits are federally insured, are required to run credit checks on applicants. The Senate version of the state legislation also would allow credit unions to perform the checks.

Nationally, 60 percent of employers report using credit checks as a tool in pre-employment screening, according to the Society for Human Resource Management, a professional organization.

There's no data on how many businesses in Maryland pursue such checks, but state lawmakers say a rising chorus of their constituents have complained about the practice.

Kyla Whiting experienced it firsthand.

A few years ago, the 26-year-old Caroline County woman says, she sought seasonal employment at a handbag store at Queenstown Premium Outlets. During the application process, she says, she was told her credit score wasn't high enough to get hired.

"They didn't hire me because of credit," she said.

Whiting wasn't asked to explain her report. Given the opportunity, she says, she would have told the employer about her medical condition.

She said she has multiple sclerosis — and no health insurance.

But Whiting says another factor is at play for her and for many other young adults.

"A lot of people who are younger like me, we didn't understand credit," she said. "When you get these credit cards, you don't really think about how it affects you in the long run."

Whiting's employment search took a better turn just a few doors down at the same outlet center. A party goods store that didn't perform a credit check hired her as a retail manager, a position that involved handling money. She held the job off and on for several years.

"That just says to me that you can't judge a person by what they look like on paper," she said. "Credit doesn't justify me as a person or show that I'm someone who is going to steal."

Others with similar stories have testified in Annapolis or sent letters to lawmakers.

In one note, Easter Morris wrote about applying several months ago for a janitorial position at a local cleaning service. The Baltimore woman said she was told that she qualified for the job — but wouldn't get it because of her credit.

"I cannot understand why my credit had anything to do with a cleaning job," wrote Morris, 52.

She wrote that she is ill and drawing Social Security disability payments that aren't enough to keep up with her bills — which is why she was trying to get a job.

Changing the law, she wrote, "will help many of us who are struggling to make ends meet."

Robert Robinson wrote to legislators that a security agency was impressed with his credentials but didn't make an offer because of his credit.

"You know, it gives the impression that you're not reliable," the Suitland man wrote. "That's just not true."

But some employers say credit reports can play an important role in assessing job applicants.

Vangel Paper co-owner Valerie S. Androutsopoulos told lawmakers that her Baltimore-based document recycling and destruction company needs to protect its clients from fraud.

"It's vital to safeguard our clients' information," she said. Employees handle documents with data that could be used to commit identity theft. "We need every tool possible to minimize this risk."

Androutsopoulos said she doesn't have blanket rules about using the reports and tends to ignore negative information if it involves medical or education debts or mortgage issues. She said she hired an administrator last year even though he had a problem report. He'd declared bankruptcy to avoid foreclosure, she said.

What she's looking for in the reports, she said, is a history of staying current on lines of credit over a seven-year period.

"We don't base our hiring decisions solely on credit history," she said. "It's just one part of the information that's evaluated."

The legislation approved by the Senate would allow companies handling sensitive data to continue running credit reports. Companies also could run checks on applicants for high-level positions, such as chief financial officers.

But it would otherwise prohibit employers from using an employee's credit report or credit history as a basis to deny employment to a job applicant or penalize or discharge an existing employee.

Violators would be referred to the state commissioner of labor and industry. They could face a $500 penalty for a first-time offense and a $2,500 penalty for repeat violations.

The House Economic Matters Committee could vote as soon as this week.

An earlier version of this story cited several individuals who believed they were denied employment because they had low credit scores. In fact, would-be employers do not receive the scores themselves when they run credit checks. The legislation is intended to limit their access to the entire credit report.

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