WASHINGTON – Companies using criminal records or bad credit reports to screen out job applicants might land afoul of anti-discrimination laws as the government steps up scrutiny of hiring policies that can hurt blacks and Hispanics.

A blanket refusal to hire workers based on criminal records or credit problems can be illegal if it has a disparate impact on racial minorities, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The agency enforces the nation’s employment discrimination laws.

“Our sense is that the problem is snowballing because of the technology allowing these checks to be done with a fair amount of ease,” said Carol Miaskoff, an EEOC attorney.

With millions of adults having criminal records — from underage drinking to homicide — a growing number of people are having a rough time finding work. And more companies are trying to screen out people with bankruptcies, court judgments or credit problems just as those numbers have swollen during the recession.

Just ask Adrienne Hudson, a single mother who says she was fired from her new job as a bus driver at First Transit in Oakland, Calif., when the company found out she had been convicted seven years earlier for welfare fraud.

Hudson, 44, is fighting back with a lawsuit alleging the company’s hiring practice discriminates against black and Latino job seekers, who have arrest and conviction rates far greater than whites.

“People make mistakes,” said Hudson, who is black, “but when they correct their mistake, they should not be punished again outside of the court system.”

Justice Department statistics show that 38 percent of the U.S. prison population is black, compared with about 12 percent of the general population. In 2008, African Americans were about six times more likely to be incarcerated than whites. The incarceration rate for Latinos was 2.3 times higher than whites.

If criminal histories are taken into account, the EEOC says employers must also consider the nature of the job, the seriousness of the offense and how long ago it occurred. For example, it may make sense to disqualify a bank employee with a past conviction for embezzlement, but not necessarily for a DUI.

About 73 percent of major employers report that they always check on applicants’ criminal records, while 19 percent do so for select job candidates, according to a 2010 survey by the Society for Human Resource Management.

The same survey found that almost half of major companies conduct credit checks for some job candidates, such as those who would be in a position of financial trust. Another 13 percent perform credit checks for all potential workers.

Last fall, the EEOC sent a strong message to employers when it filed a class-action lawsuit against Freeman Companies, a Dallas-based events planning firm, alleging the company discriminated against blacks, Hispanics and males by rejecting job seekers based on credit history and criminal records. Freeman has denied the charges.