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New York Students Slam Credit Checks

Amy Traub

The students assembled outside Borough of Manhattan Community College yesterday morning were indignant. “Students are juggling college expenses and family obligations,” declared student government representative Shadae Blair, “one reason we seek an education is to get ahead in life.” But students feared their efforts to get ahead would be stymied if future employers scrutinized their credit reports and didn’t like the amount of student loan debt or the size of the credit card liability they saw there.

Their concern was reasonable: Six in ten employers nationwide look at credit reports when hiring, and there are no rules or legal guidelines for what aspects of a job applicant’s credit history they can consider or what weight they should give to it. With $1 trillion of student loan debt outstanding, no one wanted to be the next Latoya Horton -- fired from a new job (or never hired at all) because of the very loans they needed to qualify for it.

 “Employment credit checks are a roadblock on the path to opportunity,” Councilman Brad Lander explained. It was why he introduced The Stop Credit Discrimination in Employment Act (Intro 857) to the City Council. The legislation, which would ban the use of credit checks in employment in New York City, is co-sponsored by a veto-proof majority of 35 City Councilmembers, including Dan Garodnick, Robert Jackson, Ydanis Rodriguez, and Margaret Chin, who attended the rally this morning. Dozens of advocacy groups -- from local folks at NYPIRG, NEDAP, the South Brooklyn Legal Services and District Council 37 AFSCME to national groups like Demos and the National Employment Law Project -- have signed on in support.

I’ve written in this space before about the compelling arguments against the use of credit checks in employment. How credit reports -- originally developed to predict loan repayment -- have never been proven reliable for employment; how they have a discriminatory impact, disproportionately harming people of color; and how they violate privacy and are too often filled with misleading errors. But it’s something else to hear those arguments ring out in a crowd of policymakers, advocates, and young people worried about their futures, insisting, as they did with a raucous chant this morning:

“Character can’t be measured by debt! Down with employer credit checks!” 

That’s the spirit that will make New York City the next jurisdiction to outlaw employment credit checks, removing a barrier to employment for anyone who’s had to borrow to make ends meet or get ahead.