Hank Ronan knew he would get the job. He had sailed through three rounds of interviews and hit it off with the doctors at the diagnostic center in Annandale, Va., where he had applied to be a driver for $11 an hour.
Shuttling patients to appointments was a world away from his 20 years as a software engineer, but it was the best that Ronan could find after being laid off in 2011. He was eager to get back to work and granted the doctor’s office permission to run a credit check. Ronan never heard back, he said Tuesday in an interview.
He wouldn’t have thought much of it, but months earlier Ronan had received a rejection letter from a state-run liquor store that cited his poor credit as the reason he was not hired as a clerk. With about $20,000 in credit card debt, he said, he knew his finances were a mess, but he didn’t know that it could cost him a job.
“I had no idea that my credit could do this,” said Ronan, 68, who now works part time as a courier. “The older you get the harder it is to find a job, and this just makes it worse.”
Ronan’s experience is at the heart of legislation introduced Tuesday by a group of Senate Democrats seeking to bar companies from using credit checks to weed out job applicants. Lawmakers say the practice contributes to long-term unemployment and disproportionately affects women and minorities whose credit was damaged during the financial crisis.
“No one should be denied the chance to compete for a job because of a credit report that bears no relationship to job performance,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), one of seven lawmakers sponsoring the Equal Employment for All Act, said during a call with reporters. “For millions of working families, a hard personal blow translates into a hard financial blow that will show up for years in a credit report.”
The bill, which exempts jobs that require a national security clearance, aims to stop employers from disqualifying would-be hires based on poor credit. In the face of stubbornly high unemployment, lawmakers say the continued use of credit reports could stymie economic growth.
Companies can legally check a credit history under the Fair Credit Reporting Act, which requires a job applicant’s consent. Forty-
seven percent of employers use credit checks in their hiring decisions, according to a 2012 survey by the Society for Human Resource Management.
Companies have long used credit reports to gauge whether applicants who would be responsible for handling money can manage their own finances, said Elizabeth Milito, senior executive counsel at the National Federation of Independent Business.
“A credit check can serve an important function in certain jobs, especially in the financial services industry,” she said. “A blanket prohibition would disadvantage many businesses that use credit as one component of a background check.”
Advocates and the lawmakers argue that there is no evidence that credit history is an indication of an ability to deliver packages or manage a stockroom — jobs that now require credit checks.
A study published in May by liberal think tank Demos found that credit checks were required in jobs such as telephone tech support and selling frozen yogurt. The think tank surveyed unemployed Americans and found that one in 10 had been told they would not be hired because of their credit. Poor credit was often associated with the lack of health insurance, medical debt or job loss.
Indeed, Ronan said he racked up tens of thousands of dollars in debt during a six-month stint of unemployment 15 years ago. He has tried to get a handle on his bills, but years of spotty employment and underemployment have made it difficult.
“The use of credit checks creates a Catch 22 for job seekers. It traps unemployed workers who have fallen behind on their bills in a vicious cycle of debt,” said Nancy Zirkin, executive vice president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.
Advocates say the widespread use of credit reports is especially troubling because they at times contain inaccuracies. About 21 percent of Americans have had an error on a credit report from at least one of the three major credit bureaus, according to the Federal Trade Commission.
It is difficult to say whether the bill, which has no Republican support, has a chance of making it to the Senate floor. A similar piece of legislation introduced by Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) in 2011 stalled in committee. While lawmakers debate the use of credit checks on a federal level, 10 states, including Maryland, have in the past three years banned employers from running a credit check on a prospective hire.