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 polled 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 have proposed outlawing most credit checks, saying the practice traps people in debt because their past fiscal problems prevent them from finding work.

Wisconsin state Rep. Kim Hixson, D-Whitewater, 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, Nate, began having seizures as a toddler. In the first year alone, Becker ran up $25,000 in medical debt.

Over 4½ months, he was turned down for at least eight positions for which he had authorized a credit check, Becker said. He said one potential employer told him, “If your credit is bad, then you’ll steal from me.”

“I had lost a business, I was behind on my bills and I was unable to get a job,” he said. He has since found work dismantling cars at an auto recycling company that did not ask to run a credit check.

Hixson calls what happened to Becker discrimination based on credit history and said his bill would ban it.

Hixson 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. But consumer advocates say most applicants feel they’re not in a position to say no.

Most of the bills being proposed this year resemble laws in Hawaii and Washington that bar employers from using credit reports when hiring for most posts. The laws contain exceptions in cases where such information could be relevant — for example, if the person is applying to work in a bank.

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.

Mike Aitken, the Society for Human Resources Management’s director of government affairs, said a blanket ban could remove a tool employers can use in making 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.

He said someone who can’t 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.


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