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Council Bill Outlaws Job Bias Based on Credit

James Wright | 3/2/2011, 9:25 p.m.

A D.C. Council member has authored a bill that would prohibit discrimination in employment on the basis of a poor credit history.

D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) is the author of the "Equal Access to Employment for All Act of 2011." Graham said that the purpose of the bill is to help Washingtonians get jobs despite credit ratings.

"Many people are finding themselves caught in a Catch 22," Graham said in an article that appeared in the Sun., Jan. 23 edition of the Washington Examiner newspaper. "They lose their job because of the economic downturn and then they get into debt. A job would help them get out of debt, but if they are blocked from getting one by bad credit, then they end up in a never-ending spiral."

Graham's bill would outlaw the use of a credit report in the determination of employment, even if a prospective employ-ee consents. The bill does allow the use of a credit report in the case of District residents seeking jobs that require a na-tional security or FDIC clearance; a state or local government agency which requires a credit check; an applicant who is seeking or currently holds a supervisory, managerial, professional or executive position at a financial institution; and if mandated by law.

Many District residents are having problems paying their bills or mortgages because of the struggling economy. District residents, like many Americans, are finding it harder to make ends meet without an income to count on.

However, many employers check applicants' credit reports based on the theory that the best employees practice sound financial management regarding their personal finances. Leaders of civil rights groups such as Barbara Arnwine of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights under Law and many financial planners dispute that theory, saying that often bad credit is a result of incorrect information on credit reports and rules and regulations that govern the reports that do not take into account personal circumstances such as paying for exorbitant medical costs and the unexpected loss of income.

Barbara Lang, president of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce in Northwest, said she supports the spirit of Graham's bill.

"I understand what he is trying to do," Lang said. "I know what he is trying to accomplish because so many people are having credit troubles because of the bad economy and they are out of work. However, I think he needs to work with businesses, particularly small businesses."

Lang said that small businesses often have employees that perform multiple roles, which may result in an employee handling financial matters. She said that Graham's bill should take into account the small business owner who needs evi-dence that a prospective employee who may have to handle money can be trusted.

Many D.C. workers are employed in the tourism and hospitality industries and the firms in those areas have various policies regarding credit checks for employment.

For example, Ben's Chili Bowl, based in Northwest, is a world-famous eatery that has under its corporate umbrella a restaurant and bar known as Ben's Next

Door, booths at the Washington Nationals Stadium in Southeast, a gift shop and a visitor's center. Ben's, who is owned by the District's Ali family and has hosted such luminaries as President Obama, Nicholas Sarkozy, the president of the French Republic and comedian Bill Cosby, does not check the credit of prospective employees. It relies on the personal interview, experience of the applicant and references in making employment decisions.

Not all businesses operate the same way.

The Courtyard by Marriott Convention Center in Northwest, however, does look into a prospective employee's financial background.

"We do check a person's credit," said Thomas Penny III, the general manager of the Courtyard Marriott. "It is not the basis of determining whether we hire someone or not. We look at the whole applicant."

D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray said that he has not seen Graham's legislation, so he would not comment. D.C. Council member Sekou Biddle (D-At-Large) said that he has not looked closely at Graham's bill, but like Lang, he understands what his colleague is trying to do.

"I think the bill and the whole issue needs to be studied more," Biddle, 39, said.

"I want to find out from employers as to why they conduct credit checks in the first place. I also want to find out from people who are looking for work the types of problems they have had because they were not able to find a job based on bad credit."

Graham, 65, said that his bill would help those who want to work.

"I've heard from my own constituents who have been turned down for jobs, some as unrelated to credit as contracting and selling shoes, because of their own credit issues," Graham told the Examiner. "Why put up an artificial barrier to hiring when it already is an uphill battle to find a job?" WI
Courtesy photo

D.C. Council member Jim Graham wants people to find jobs in the District --regardless of credit history. / Courtesy photo