When 'bad' credit stands in the way of a good job

After a judge found that Rick Brooks had been wrongly fired from his airport-screener job in Milwaukee, the Transportation Security Administration agreed in 2005 to hire him back.
One catch: Brooks had to pass a background check.

Brooks sensed trouble because, he said, after losing his job at General Mitchell International Airport in 2003, financial problems led to missing child-support payments.

The TSA found that Brooks owed $7,700 in child support and would not hire him.

"It's ridiculous," said Brooks, 45, who has not worked since losing a temporary driving job with UPS on Jan 1. "In today's economy, people are losing their jobs, so naturally they won't have income. Should you be further punished by not getting a job?"

The case offers a rare glimpse into the credit requirements some employers set and their potential effect, particularly on people struggling financially.

The TSA said it did not hire Brooks because he had a medical condition that precludes working as a screener. Brooks said that even without the condition, he would have been denied his old job because the TSA excludes people with delinquent child-support payments.

New York City employment attorney Adam Klein, who does not represent Brooks, said many people are in tough situations because of employer credit screening.

"If you're poor and have poor credit, you're taken out of consideration from a whole host of jobs," Klein said.

Employer credit checks look at only delinquent payments and not at credit scores, said background-check expert Lester Rosen.

The federal government does credit checks for jobs involving security. Police departments check prospective officers' credit but often try to determine the reason for a credit problem, said Kim Kohlhepp of the International Association of Chiefs of Police. "A lot of time finances go into a tailspin as a result of a divorce," Kohlhepp said.

Strict credit standards can exclude otherwise strong people from low-level jobs, said Mimi Wallace, personnel director at Metters Industries, a Virginia IT firm.

Credit checks cost about $15 and can protect against lawsuits by customers or shareholders if an employee causes damage, Rosen said.

The TSA won't hire airport screeners or contractors who have $5,000 in overdue debt, any federal or state tax lien or any delinquent child-support payments. This ensures that employees "are less susceptible to financial pressures that would make them more vulnerable to bribes," TSA spokesman Christopher White said.

Working screeners have been fired when a credit check found they violated TSA standards, White said. The agency sometimes helps screeners in financial trouble develop a debt-payment plan to keep their jobs, he said.

But the TSA itself may add to screeners' problems. In a 2007 report by the Homeland Security Department Inspector General, several TSA officials said that "the low pay (screeners) earn might be a reason why credit problems develop after hiring."

In a survey for the report, 15% of TSA's airport security directors said the credit standard was too strict and disqualifies good applicants. Screeners make about $35,000 a year on average, federal figures show.

Gony Frieder Goldberg, a lawyer with the American Federation of Government Employees who represented Brooks, said someone without a job can quickly accumulate $5,000 in overdue debt. "I don't think that one month of unemployment equals being subject to bribery by a terrorist," Goldberg said.

The TSA may require credit checks for the 1 million workers with access to secure airport areas. Discussions follow a 2007 case in which two Comair workers at Orlando's airport were arrested after sneaking 14 guns onto a Puerto Rico-bound plane.

Zabdiel Santiago Balaguer had offered co-worker Thomas Anthony Munoz $4,000 to $5,000 to help him, an inspector general report found. Both are in prison. The report said Munoz needed the money because he "was in a difficult financial situation."

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