The first couple of times Alfred J. Carpenter was turned down for a job, he didn’t know what to think. He been laid off early in the recession and then had the bad fortune of tearing tendons in his knee just when he didn’t have health insurance. The job market was terrible and he had been out of work for more than a year. But the managers at the first two shoe stores to which he applied in the summer of 2010 seemed to be taken by his résumé. He had sold shoes for six years at Salvatore Ferragamo on Fifth Avenue and later at J. M. Weston, where a pair of men’s dress shoes can cost $2,000. The manager at one shop was already discussing salary. The other, he said, invited him to fill out the paperwork normally done on the first day on a job.
“Who does that if they’re not planning on hiring you?” Mr. Carpenter asked. Yet neither job materialized. One manager, he said, “basically hung up on me.”
A friend at Bergdorf Goodman, the high-end clothier, secured him an interview for an opening in the shoe department. But when Mr. Carpenter confided to his friend that his finances were a mess, “he tells me, ‘Oh, you’ve got bad credit? They’ll never hire you.’ ” Sure enough, a week or two later, Mr. Carpenter said, he received a notice from Bergdorf informing him that while running a credit check, the store found information that played a role in its hiring decision. It was a so-called adverse action letter that by law a business conducting a credit report is supposed to send to an applicant.
Mr. Carpenter kept applying for jobs and kept checking off the box granting his would-be employer permission to look into his past. And he kept being turned down. There was the recession and there may have been dozens of applicants for each of these jobs. But while Bergdorf was the only company to follow up a job rejection with an adverse action letter, Mr. Carpenter became convinced that his credit report was a curse.
“No one lets me explain, ‘Hey, I had this freak injury when I didn’t have health insurance,’ ” he said. “It’s black and white: ‘You have these bad marks on your record, you don’t get hired.’ ” Down to his last $200, he applied for and was granted food stamps and federal housing assistance. “There’s no reason,” he said, “a strong, able guy like me should have to go on welfare.”
People tend to think of banks and other lenders as the main users of credit reports. But over the last several decades, credit reporting bureaus have been selling their services to a much wider range of buyers.
“Credit reports are really seeping into the soil,” said Sarah Ludwig, co-director of the Neighborhood Economic Development Advocacy Project, a New York-based nonprofit. “It’s taken an outsized role in employment, housing and insurance.” For those seeking a job, it can lead to what Chi Chi Wu, a staff lawyer at the National Consumer Law Center in Boston, calls “a bizarre, Kafkaesque experience.”
“Someone loses their job,” Ms. Wu said, “so they can’t pay their bills — and now they can’t get a job because they couldn’t pay their bills because they lost a job? It’s this Catch-22 that makes no sense.” It can also be a kind of backdoor job discrimination, Ms. Wu contends, given the numerous studies that demonstrate that those black, Latino or simply poor are more likely to have lower credit scores than those who are white and have means.
Experian, one of the big three credit reporting bureaus, states in its marketing materials, “Credit information provides insight into an applicant’s integrity and responsibility toward his or her financial obligations.”
But to Ms. Wu and others, a credit report says more about a person’s economic circumstances than his or her moral character. “Some people can go to daddy and say, ‘I can’t pay my bills, will you bail me out?’ ” Ms. Wu said. “And others can’t.”
Nearly half (47%) of employers use credit checks when making a hiring decision, according to a 2012 survey by the Society for Human Resource Management. Most businesses use credit checks only to screen for certain positions, but one in eight, the survey found, does a credit check before every hire. “We’ve heard from dozens of people over the past several years who say they’re being denied jobs specifically because of a credit check,” Ms. Ludwig said. The people contacting her group, she said, are “mostly lower-wage workers,” especially those applying to big retail chains.
“Prohibiting the use of credit checks in employment is now our number one campaign,” Ms. Ludwig said. “Because it’s discriminatory. And because the last thing we need in a recession is another barrier to employment.” Lawmakers in some jurisdictions have proved sympathetic to those arguments. Nine states have adopted legislation that curbs the use of credit reports to judge prospective hires — seven of them since the start of 2010. Representative Steve Cohen, Democrat from Tennessee, has sponsored federal legislation that would restrict their use. The New York Legislature and the New York City Council are considering strict new laws that would greatly limit an employer’s ability to do credit screening.
Advocates and lawmakers are already seeing the impact of their efforts. The Society for Human Resource Management started polling members about use of credit reports as a pre-employment tool in 2004. Over the years, the numbers were consistent: six in 10 businesses indicated that they used them. But in its most recent survey in 2012, that number fell to just below five in 10. That decline no doubt is the result, in part, of new state prohibitions and the attention the issue has received in the last few years, said Kate Kennedy, a spokeswoman for the society. But she also notes that her association has been educating its members in the importance of looking at “how relevant a credit check is for a particular position.”
That is bad news for the big three credit reporting bureaus: Experian, TransUnion and Equifax. But how bad is anyone’s guess. None of the three reveal what portion of overall revenue is derived from employment-related credit checks. Even if they did, the number would only offer a partial picture, said Terry W. Clemans, executive director of the National Consumer Reporting Association, an industry trade group based in Roselle, Ill. “There are several hundred companies out there that specialize in employment screenings,” he said.
Mr. Clemans saw the rapid increase of employment screening through the 1990s and into the 2000s, and considers the rising concern about its use in the last few years “hysteria.” “Credit is one data point that businesses are using to get an overall feel,” Mr. Clemans said. “Does this consumer have a lifestyle that fits the job? Is this someone who I can trust?” It is not the only factor. “People are assuming because they checked that box agreeing to a consumer report and they were late in paying their Visa bills, that’s why they didn’t get a job,” Mr. Clemans said. It’s easier to blame the credit bureaus, in other words, than to accept that you weren’t the best possible candidate.
STEVEN BURMAN is the founder and president of Credit Advocates, a nonprofit in New York that helps consumers who have credit problems. In the past, people who were rejected for bad credit for a job in financial services might show up for help, but by and large his clients were trying to secure a home loan. “What’s changed over the last four or five years is now I’m hearing from all these people who are concerned about finding work,” he said. And instead of stockbrokers, Mr. Burman is seeing “regular people looking for blue-collar low-wage jobs” such as security guard or retail clerk.
The problem is most pronounced among women he counsels at a homeless shelter in the Bronx. Those clients are almost all out-of-work single mothers. “They all want to do the right thing,” he said. “But they have terrible credit and none of them can get jobs because of it. It’s a vicious cycle.”
Despite his sympathy for his clients, Mr. Burman told me that he never makes a full-time hire at Credit Advocates without first pulling that person’s credit report. An employee dealing with bill collectors could be a distracted worker, he said. And how financial problems are explained could offer insights into an applicant’s character: Does he take responsibility for debts, or does she blame problems on someone or something else? “I see it as the start of a dialogue,” he said.
Besides, a credit check is relatively inexpensive. A basic employment screening package can cost $19 to $50 per applicant. “If you have five people and can’t make up your mind, why not pull credit reports?” Mr. Burman asked. The millions of Americans who saw their credit damaged during the financial crisis in 2008, however, might find Mr. Burman’s rationale unfair. Gustavo Panesso, a man in his 50s who lives in Queens, was driving to his orientation to be a sales associate at the J. Crew store in Rockefeller Center in August 2010, he said, when his cellphone rang. “It was the man who was supposed to be my supervisor,” Mr. Panesso said. “He tells me, ‘Gustavo, I regret to say that we’re going to have to cancel your orientation because there was a problem with your credit report.’ ”
In Mr. Panesso’s case, the trouble was related to a pair of credit cards he had co-signed for his sister; she had lost her job a few years earlier and the cards were in default. He tried explaining the situation to his would-be bosses, and even hired a lawyer, “but they told me unless I cleared up this discrepancy, we can’t hire you.” Moreover, credit reports are often inaccurate. In February, the Federal Trade Commission released a report indicating that one in four consumers was likely to find at least one mistake in his or her credit report. Mr. Panesso was rejected for jobs at several more big national retail chains. But J. Crew, he said, was the only business to send him an adverse action letter. Did that mean the others rejected his application for other reasons? It’s impossible to know for sure. Amy Traub, a senior policy analyst at the liberal-leaning policy group Demos, and the author of “Discredited: How Employment Credit Checks Keep Qualified Workers Out of a Job,” a report released in March, says that the law requiring an adverse action letter is rarely enforced. “We found that many employers don’t” send them, Ms. Traub said. Mr. Panesso now picks up odd jobs when he can find them. “Quite frankly,” he said, “I gave up.”
Alfred Carpenter, the shoe salesman, can relate. Now a fit man in his 50s, he lives in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, where he grew up. After graduating with a two-year associate’s degree from Kingsborough Community College, he worked his way up in the shoe business, landing at Ferragamo. In a good year, he said, he would earn $60,000 to $70,000. In his mid-30s, he quit Ferragamo to study acting. But after two years of trying to catch his big break, he ran out of money and, in 1999, he returned to selling shoes. In 2007 he took a job at Paul & Shark, a store specializing in yachting clothes. In August 2007, four months after he started, Mr. Carpenter was laid off. Not appreciating the size of the economic cataclysm that was about to rock the globe, he decided to take several months off before looking for another job. “I figured with my résumé, I’d get another job easy,” he said. He also decided he wasn’t going to waste money buying health insurance. “I’m a healthy guy,” he said. “And it was too expensive.”
One day, playing in his regular Saturday morning roller hockey game, he ripped the tendons in one knee. The medical bills — the ambulance, the surgery, rehabilitation — piled up. “Every time I’d open my mailbox,” Mr. Carpenter said, “there’d be another six or seven bills.” A clerk in the hospital’s billing department suggested that he could wipe out his nearly $50,000 in medical costs by filing for bankruptcy. Sitting at a metal table in his kitchen, he held up the final bankruptcy notice. “This is the cause of all my problems,” he declared. “Without this, I could’ve worked anywhere in the city. I would have had a hundred jobs.” Mr. Carpenter would try talking to the employers who turned him down. “Was it the bankruptcy?” he would ask. But he never got a satisfying answer, just hemming and hawing. “I could hear it in their voice,” Mr. Carpenter said. After a while, he tried pre-emptively bringing up the bankruptcy in interviews, but that only led to more awkwardness. Luckily, Mr. Carpenter said, he still lived in the rent-controlled apartment in which he grew up. The monthly rent was $600 and he was able to split the cost with a roommate once things turned bad. The federal assistance amounted to $400 or so a month. But even then he feared ending up homeless, worried that he would never find another job. “I tell the woman my story during intake,” Mr. Carpenter said about his visit to apply for food stamps and other aid. “And she goes, ‘We hear that story all the time, about the credit.’ She said, ‘Yeah, we know, if you’ve got bad credit, you’re not getting a job.’ ”
Some jobs require a credit check by law. Depending on the state, that includes positions as teachers, police officers, firefighters and day care operators, said Ms. Kennedy at the human resource society. Most of the state laws curbing the use of credit reports as an employment screen carve out exceptions for people applying for supervisory positions or executive positions inside a financial institution. Mr. Cohen’s House bill creates exemptions for those seeking a national security clearance.
But what about everyone else? Companies that use credit reports as an employment screen seem generally reluctant to talk about how or why they use them. Bergdorf Goodman declined to comment, as did several other retailers who rejected Mr. Carpenter for a position. A J. Crew representative said that the company stopped reviewing credit reports in 2012. “Employers are looking for a sense of responsibility,” said Richard Mellor, a vice president at the National Retail Federation. “They want to see that an individual pays their bills on time and takes responsibility for what they buy.”
The Web site of a pre-employment screening company, Info Cubic, says, “A credit report can be an important indicator of financial responsibility for employees with fiduciary or cash handling responsibilities, access to expensive equipment, other people’s property, or otherwise placed in a position of financial trust.” Experian’s pitch is more ominous: “Every time you hire a new employee you put a lot on the line,” says a company brochure. “The wrong decision could jeopardize your firm’s assets, reputation, or security.”
Consumer advocates say that there is little evidence for the industry’s claims of a connection between a credit report and an employee’s trustworthiness. One study published in 2008 in the International Journal of Selection and Assessment suggested a correlation between a person’s financial history and workplace theft. But a 2011 study in the Journal of Applied Psychology found no link between a person’s credit score and what it called “deviant” behavior like workplace theft. (It did, however, find a correlation between a low credit score and an agreeable personality.) Critics also have the testimony of the TransUnion official who told the Oregon Legislature in 2010, “We don’t have any research to show any statistical correlation between what’s in somebody’s credit report and their job performance or their likelihood to commit fraud.”
“As a researcher, I’d like to think that if about half of all employers are doing this, they must have some real evidence that it’s valuable,” said Ms. Traub of Demos. “But in this case that evidence is really lacking.” Mr. Carpenter finally landed a job at the end of 2011. He caught a break after he confided his troubles to a friend in the shoe business. The friend, too, had credit problems but had found work at a Manhattan shoe store. Mr. Carpenter secured a job there and, last fall, he moved to another store where the pay was better. “I’m happy,” he said, but he also feels shellshocked.
“I have this accident and mess up my credit,” Mr. Carpenter said, “and now I’m the guy people don’t see as trustworthy.”