For casino job hunters, good news and bad

A clearer path for those with criminal records, but credit history could trip some up

SOME GOOD NEWS recently for the MGM casino in Springfield and for folks hoping to land jobs there: The casino now has more discretion to handle criminal background checks for potential employees.

Some background. Last year, at MGM’s request, the state Gaming Commission reviewed the law governing casino employment and concluded, to MGM’s disappointment, that the law’s background check requirement, applied to all casino job applicants, including those in the category of “service employees” – restaurant workers, parking lot attendants, hotel housekeepers, and similar positions having little contact with the casino’s gaming operations.

The requirement prohibits the employment of anyone convicted of a felony or other crime involving embezzlement, theft, fraud, or perjury during the previous ten years. (It also requires that applicants undergo a detailed investigation of their criminal records and that they be under an ongoing obligation to report any arrest, license suspension, disciplinary action by any governmental agency, and any “allegation about which the individual is or should be aware involving conduct that could lead to criminal charges.”)

Having agreed with MGM that it would be impossible to find enough job applicants for these service positions who could pass that stringent check, the Gaming Commission, with the support of MGM and elected officials and community groups from Springfield, asked the Legislature to change the law.

The Legislature obliged last November by including in a supplemental budget a provision allowing the commission, in its discretion, to exempt some job titles from this background check requirement.

In follow-up, the commission recently released a list of 127 job titles, from banquet servers to coat check attendants, housekeepers, and pastry chefs, that are now exempt. The change, the commission’s press release announced, makes more than 800 additional jobs available to applicants who meet with the casino’s approval. MGM, anticipating its grand opening in August, was delighted with the news: Many more Springfield area residents seeking challenging new jobs, the casino said, will now have “a legitimate shot at their dreams.”

But one more hurdle may lie ahead. MGM requires that all prospective employees agree, as a condition of their job applications even being considered, to give the casino access to their consumer credit histories.

Consumer credit histories are intended to evaluate credit worthiness, not employment worthiness. Despite this fact, MGM, like nearly half of all employers, uses credit checks as an employment screening tool. There’s little downside. The federal Fair Credit Reporting Act permits this usage as long as the employer has obtained the applicant’s written permission. The only other restriction the law imposes is that employers notify applicants when a credit report played a role in a decision not to hire — a requirement evaded easily by pretext.

Credit checks include information about mortgages, student loans, car loans, credit card usage, delinquencies, tax liens, bankruptcies, and any debts, including medical debts, reported to collection agencies. This information is not always accurate. The Federal Trade Commission has reported that one in five consumers has an erroneous credit report, and credit reporting agencies have shown little interest in helping consumers correct these errors.

Of even greater concern is the likelihood that credit reports, when used as an employment screening tool, are wrongly seen as evidence of bad character or other unsuitability for employment, when they instead reflect past hardships, such as job loss, medical debt, or having been the victim of a predatory lending scheme. In these cases, the hardships that the job applicant is hoping to overcome through a job can become, perversely, the very reason the job is denied.

The Legislature’s Joint Committee on Labor and Workforce Development has given favorable reports this session to two bills that would add Massachusetts to a list of 11 other states with laws to limit the use of credit history reports in hiring, promotion, and firing.

In the meantime, it will be up to MGM to ensure that its use of credit check histories does not undermine the new discretion it has won to evaluate casino service job applicants according to its own standards. One of the legislative goals of the gaming act, MGM president Michael Mathis has said, is “to provide opportunities to the underemployed, particularly those in the communities hosting the gaming establishments.”

Thousands of Springfield job applicants are depending on MGM not to allow credit checks to spoil this “legitimate shot at their dreams.”

Margaret Monsell is an attorney practicing in the Boston area.