How Elizabeth Warren Is Trying to Keep Employers from Digging into Your Credit Score

Decrying a “rigged” system and the long overhang of the 2008 crash, Sen. Elizabeth Warren Tuesday introduced a bill to ban mandatory pre-employment credit checks. “This act is about basic fairness,” the Massachusetts Democrat told reporters on a Tuesday call. “Let people compete for jobs on the merits, not whether they already have enough money to pay all their bills.”

Warren’s bill, the Equal Employment for All Act, would make it illegal for employers (outside national security jobs) to require that job applicants disclose their credit history. Warren’s Senate bill is co-sponsored by six Senate Democrats, including Vermont’s Patrick Leahy and Ohio’s Sherrod Brown, and is based on a bill Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., introduced in 2011 in the House. “A credit score,” Warren argued, “should not be used as a way to cut people out of the job market.”

“This is one more way the game is rigged,” said Warren. Whereas rich people “don’t see their credit scores go down 150 points” when they get divorced, Warren argued that “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.” In a 2012 California Law Review essay, the University of Texas’ Angela Littwin wrote that “As consumer lending has permeated American life, violent partners have begun using debt as a means of exercising abusive control, making the consumer credit system an unknowing party to domestic violence.”

“Pre-employment credit checks disproportionately hit minorities, students and seniors,” Warren told Salon, “because these groups are likely to be hit hard by bad credit scores.” She told reporters that her bill addresses “a problem that’s become even more acute in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis,” where many “were hit really hard financially, and now they’ve got credit scores that, the bad information will persist for seven years, or in some cases longer.”

Echoing advocates, Warren noted a study suggesting a fifth of consumers, when given the chance, could find at least one inaccuracy in their own credit report, and argued there was “little or no evidence or any correlation between job performance and a credit score.”

The billionaire Pritzker family, which includes Obama’s second term Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker, owned the majority of the credit report company TransUnion until a 2010sale to a private equity firm. Salon’s inquiries to TransUnion and two other industry leaders, Equifax and Experian, yielded a response from the Consumer Data Industry Association, whose vice president, Norm Magnuson, emailed that “companies should have information available to them that might impact the business in general and employees in particular.”

Citing data from the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners, which he said showed that “living beyond his or her financial means or experiencing financial difficulties” were the “top two red-flag warnings” for employee theft, Magnuson said such crimes “can very well determine whether a small business survives or not.” Magnuson wrote that a 2008 study in the International Journal of Selection and Assessment showed “that employees with financial history concerns were significantly more likely to engage in counterproductive work behavior than those without financial concerns.” Demos senior policy analyst Amy Traub rejected CDIA’s invocation of the 2008 study on several counts, noting it was limited to “government employees who filled out a specialized questionnaire”; that it involved business debts as well as personal credit; and that its authors identified it as “provisional” and said “more research is needed” to assess the effectiveness of credit history in predicting misbehavior. Traub emailed that two subsequent studies – one in the Journal of Applied Psychology  and another in the Psychologist Manager Journal – had “found no correlation between personal credit and propensity to commit theft or any other ‘counterproductive workplace behaviors.’”

Asked about her bill’s prospects for passage, Warren said she understood “how difficult it is to get a bill through the United States Congress,” and had “no illusions,” but “I know that nothing happens if you don’t take the first step.” She added, “People told me it wasn’t possible to get the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau through, and yet we did it.” Asked if she’d reached out to Republicans for support, Warren said, “We’re in the middle of talking to lots of people.”

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