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Your Salary for Sale: Equifax Cashes In, But You’d Better Not Discuss It

Amy Traub

Just when we imagined that credit reporting firms couldn’t be more invasive and profiteering, NBC News breaks this story

The Equifax credit reporting agency, with the aid of thousands of human resource departments around the country, has assembled what may be the most powerful and thorough private database of Americans’ personal information ever created, containing 190 million employment and salary records covering more than one-third of U.S. adults.

Based on data voluntarily provided by thousands of U.S. businesses and public employers (from local public schools to federal agencies) Equifax’s product, The Work Number, includes information many of us would prefer to keep private, from week-by-week paystubs to information on personal “health care providers” – perhaps including the name of your psychiatrist or gynecologist.

For employers, The Work Number offers “an easy way to outsource employment verification of former workers” without having to deal with pesky phone calls whenever former employees start applying for new jobs. It’s a convenient service. But employers themselves may not know what the credit reporting giant does next:

Equifax turns around and sells some of this data to third parties, including debt collectors and financial services companies.

That’s right: debt collectors – the very companies that a new Federal Trade Commission study just found don’t bother to verify alleged debts in half of the cases studied – and yes, the same companies widely denounced for their harassing and abusive practices in pursuit of debts consumers may have paid off long ago or may never have owed – may now have access every detail of your employment history.

Yet even as Equifax and its debt collector customers cash in on data about the pay rates of millions of Americans, employees themselves can’t share information about their own paychecks so freely. According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, nearly half of U.S. employees are either contractually forbidden or strongly discouraged from discussing their own pay with their colleagues. Pay non-disclosure rules aimed at employees are a significant barrier to preventing gender and racial discrimination at work – as the ACLU points out “workers often remain in the dark about pay discrimination because employers have rules that punish employees for voluntarily sharing wage information with their colleagues.” For just that reason, Senator Barbara Mikulski has called on President Obama to issue an executive order prohibiting federal contractors from retaliating against employees who discuss salaries amongst themselves. Similarly, the National Labor Relations Board recently struck down provisions in Costco’s employee handbook  that barred employees from sharing personal salary information with coworkers. Unfortunately, this ruling was thrown into limbo when a court struck down President Obama’s recess appointments to the NLRB

The upshot? Even as employee advocates seek partial solutions to rules that bar workers from freely discussing their own salaries, Equifax insists that its collection and resale of personal salary information to third parties is perfectly legal under the Fair Credit Reporting Act. More than one law needs to be changed here.