Tips for Surviving Sudden Unemployment

Through no fault of your own, you find yourself suddenly out of a job. Now what?

The first question to answer is: Is this unemployment temporary — or permanent? If you’re out of work due to the Coronavirus pandemic, your employer may have furloughed you temporarily. If that’s the case, focus your efforts on getting through this temporary period of unemployment.

If, however, your employer has permanently closed, or if yPlaceholder Imageou’re looking to change jobs or change careers, you’ll need to focus on different actions.

Your First Step: Secure Your Finances

Regardless of whether unemployment is temporary or permanent, your first step is to assess your financial situation. Assess your finances and identify any benefits that may be due to you, either from your company or government sources.

Personal Finances

One of the biggest mistakes many people make after losing their job is not making immediate adjustments in their finances. With the uncertainty of the full impact of the Coronavirus pandemic, you could be out of work for four weeks or four months. No one knows right now.

However, if you were already living paycheck-to-paycheck, there will likely be some impact on your finances. So the first thing you should do is adjust your lifestyle to fit your new financial reality … at least temporarily. Conserve as much cash as you can.

Make a list of your current expenses (review your checkbook register, credit card statements, and online banking profile) and see what you can cut out. Determine which of your current monthly expenses must be maintained (mortgage and car payments, utilities, groceries) and which ones you can do without for now. The sooner you make these adjustments, the better off you will be.

Once you know what you’ll have to live on (unemployment benefits and savings, for example), you can determine if you need to find other sources of income — for example, a part-time job. (This income may have an impact on your unemployment benefits, but you may need the money to carry you through until your unemployment compensation comes in, which could be 2-4 weeks or longer.)

If your unemployment stretches on for a while, you may need to cut back to only making minimum payments on your bills. While now is not the time to be holding a garage sale, you may find some things that you can sell for cash on Facebook Marketplace, buy/sell/trade groups, or Craigslist. (Be sure to minimize contact with buyers — for example, taking payment by PayPal, Facebook payments, or Venmo and doing porch pickup.)

Try to avoid tapping into your retirement accounts or selling stocks or mutual funds while the stock market is down. If you have a cash-value life insurance policy, you might consider tapping it for emergency cash, but remember, you will have to pay interest on any loans you take out, and you’ll want to pay the loan back when you can.

If you will have trouble making your mortgage payment or paying other bills (credit cards, auto loans, student loans), contact your lender. Many of them have forbearance programs that allow you to make reduced payments or skip payments (adding the missed payments to the end of the loan period).

You may also be eligible for special programs for the unemployed. For example, the “Home Affordable Unemployment Program” may reduce your mortgage payments or suspend them altogether for some time.

Your credit card company may reduce your interest rate or lower your required minimum payment due to a job loss. (If you have involuntary unemployment credit card insurance, your credit card company may cover the minimum amount if you are laid off for a specific period.) Don’t wait to explore your eligibility for these programs.

Company Resources

When you were furloughed, your company may have provided information about the benefits you have. If you are not receiving pay, you may be able to access accrued vacation or sick pay. If you have company-provided healthcare, find out if your company will continue to pay your premiums while you are unemployed. (Otherwise, you will need to secure temporary health care coverage.)

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) eased restrictions for accessing retirement account funds. The new law allows workers who are financially impacted by the Coronavirus pandemic to cash out up to $100,000 of their 401(k) or IRA accounts. (Affected individuals are people who are diagnosed with COVID-19, their spouse, or dependent. Undiagnosed individuals may be able to take a Coronavirus Related Distribution (CRD) if they suffered adverse financial consequences due to being quarantined, furloughed, laid off, having their hours reduced, or who were unable to work due to child care responsibilities due to the Coronavirus pandemic.)

If you are furloughed from your job, you may not have to immediately repay any outstanding 401(k) loans like you would if you lost your job. (If you leave your employment under normal circumstances — whether by choice or if your position ends up being terminated, if you are under 55, unless you repay the loan in full by tax day the following year, that loan becomes a distribution, and you will pay a 10 percent early withdrawal penalty plus your ordinary income tax rate on that money.)

Note: If you had a previous loan against your 401(k), the CARES Act legislation does not apply to that loan.

Government Benefits

If you furloughed from your job, you should look into filing for unemployment benefits immediately.

The unemployment insurance system (UI) is a partnership of the federal government and state programs. Contributions are paid into the system on behalf of workers, so they have an income if they lose their jobs. The basic UI program is managed by the states, although the U.S. Department of Labor oversees the system. States provide most of the funding and administer the benefit payments. Although states must follow federal requirements, they generally establish their eligibility criteria and benefit levels.

Check and see if your state offers an unemployment benefits calculator. (A simple Google search can identify if one is available.) There are two types of unemployment calculators — one that tells you how much money you are entitled to collect, and another which says you how many weeks you are eligible to receive unemployment.

You must meet eligibility requirements, but you can determine these from your state’s unemployment office. You may even be eligible for benefits (even partial benefits) if you work part-time. You may also be eligible to collect unemployment benefits while you are receiving other benefits from your current position. Getting paid for unused vacation time you accrued does not affect your eligibility. However, you will not be eligible for benefits if you continue to receive your full salary and benefits your employer paid while you were employed.

Regular unemployment insurance benefits — in most states — run for 26 weeks (plus one unpaid “waiting week”). For people who have not yet found a job within that time frame, Emergency Unemployment Compensation (EUC) and Extended Benefits (EB) offer additional compensation. Each of these programs has a different deadline. Consequently, the number of weeks you are eligible for will depend on when you filed your original claim.

Your unemployment payment depends on your weekly earnings before being laid off, and the maximum amount of unemployment benefits available (this will vary by state). Unemployment benefits typically replace about half of your previous earnings, subject to a maximum benefit level.

According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the average unemployment benefits nationwide was $387 per week in February 2020. The maximum state-provided weekly benefit ranges from $215 in Mississippi to $550 in Massachusetts. (Some states offer higher benefits to job seekers with dependents. Check your state benefit details to see if this is the case in your state.)

Because the benefit is subject to a cap, unemployment insurance benefits replace a smaller share of previous earnings for higher-wage workers than for lower-wage workers.

The permanent Extended Benefits (EB) program typically provides an additional 13 or 20 weeks of compensation to the unemployed who have exhausted their regular benefits in states where the unemployment situation has worsened dramatically.

You may also qualify for unemployment benefits from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic if:

  • Your employer closed
  • Your hours were reduced
  • You or someone in your household is quarantined
  • You or someone you are caring for is “high risk” (older adults and persons with severe chronic medical conditions)
  • You have a lack of childcare due to the Coronavirus (i.e., your childcare closed)

You may not be eligible if you quit your job because you are worried about contracting Coronavirus at work. Check with your state’s unemployment office before leaving your job. Each state’s guidelines vary. For example, in the state of Nebraska, you may still be eligible to collect unemployment benefits if you quit your job but have “good cause” for leaving.  Examples of this include (but are not limited to), the conditions of work, compelling health reasons, or quitting to escape spousal abuse.

Note: If you stayed home from your job because you were worried about contracting Coronavirus, you might not be eligible for unemployment compensation. The CARES Act excludes individuals who can work from home with pay from collecting unemployment. It also excludes those who are currently receiving paid or sick leave.

The CARES Act also provides supplemental unemployment compensation. The law provides emergency funding to states to provide an additional $600 a week in payments — on top of regular weekly payments, as long as the individual is eligible to receive at least $1 of underlying benefits for the claimed week. From the time a worker has lost his or her job until July 31 as part of the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC) benefits. It also funds an additional 13 weeks of unemployment benefits for states, which typically cap unemployment benefits at anywhere between 12 and 30 weeks.

File your claim for benefits as soon as you can. Note that you will have to request benefits every week you want payment, even if your application is still pending initial approval. File your claim weekly during your furlough.

Many states have a one-week “waiting period” before claims are eligible. (Georgia, Iowa, Maryland, Michigan, Nevada, New Jersey, Vermont, and Wyoming don’t have a “waiting week.”) At least 35 other states have waived the waiting period for Coronavirus-related unemployment claims, allowing eligibility for benefits immediately.

At least 27 states have waived the requirement that workers actively search for work to be eligible for unemployment compensation.

Although many claims are paid within a few business days, it may take 2-3 weeks for your first unemployment check to arrive.  And currently, most applications are paid electronically through direct deposit to your account or a re-loadable prepaid debit card, instead of a physical check.

Under normal circumstances, the unemployment insurance program provides benefits to people who:

  • have enough employment to establish a claim
  • have lost a job through no fault of their own
  • Are ready, willing, and able to work
  • Are actively seeking work

However, as mentioned previously, the requirements to actively seek work have been waived in many states.

For the “actively seeking work” requirement, if you are unable to work due to the Coronavirus pandemic, as long as you stay in contact with your employer, and are available to return to work when asked, you satisfy the “work search, availability, and capability” requirements. If your current unemployment is not due to the Coronavirus pandemic, you still need to conduct a weekly work search.  However, you do not need to accept work offered to you if you are under quarantine or are under a statewide stay-at-home order.

One thing you may not have realized is that unemployment benefits count as taxable income on your federal tax return. Unemployment compensation may or may not be taxable in your state. Check with the Department of Labor in your state for information. Most state unemployment applications allow you to choose to have state and federal income tax withheld from your payments. Make sure you set aside part of the money for taxes.

You may be required to make quarterly estimated tax payments if you do not have taxes withheld from your unemployment benefit payments. Check with your tax advisor for advice.

Other Assistance

Your new financial situation may make you eligible for other kinds of assistance. For example, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), or “food stamps” are issued by the state based on financial need. Each state has a different application form and process, so contact your state agency directly to apply. During the current public health emergency, some of the existing regulations are being relaxed or suspended, which will make additional people eligible for this benefit.

Health Care Coverage

If your company is not paying your health care premiums while you are unemployed or has more than 20 employees, you can continue your existing health care coverage under the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA) law. However, you will need to pay this premium yourself. The cost of the COBRA premium may be higher than short-term insurance you can obtain for yourself.

If you have a health condition, you will want to ensure continuous coverage, so don’t let your group plan lapse before you get short-term insurance coverage in place. You may also want to check with your employer’s human resources department to be sure you will be able to get back on the group plan when work resumes.

If COBRA premiums are too costly, you can also look into short-term health insurance coverage. One source of options is ehealthinsurance.com. You may also be able to take advantage of private coverage through enrollment on an Affordable Care Act (ACA) health care exchange. If you had insurance through your employer that is no longer available, you might be eligible to enroll in the individual exchanges as part of a Special Enrollment Period. Check your eligibility and options available on Healthcare.gov or your state’s health insurance marketplace. Depending on your income, you may also qualify for free or low-cost coverage under Medicaid. (The Healthcare.gov site provides information about this option as well.)

If It’s Time for a Change

You may also take this opportunity to change directions with your career. Because the provisions under the CARES Act do not require those receiving unemployment benefits to be actively seeking work, you could use this time to start a new business.

In 2012, the Middle-Class Tax Relief and Job Act authorized $35 million in funds to encourage states to enhance and promote Self-Employment Assistance (SEA) programs. SEA entitles unemployed individuals to claim jobless benefits while simultaneously gaining access to small business development assistance. An individual with a “viable” business plan can continue to receive unemployment benefits as long as they are working full-time to get a new company off the ground.

Under this program, individuals receive financial aid equal to their unemployment insurance benefits for a maximum of 26 weeks while they receive entrepreneurial training and other resources (including counseling and technical assistance) to help them launch a business.

However, note that you are not eligible to receive extended unemployment benefits if you participate in the SEA program — you will be limited to 26 weeks of payments. You may not be eligible to receive the additional $600/week in federal assistance. Check with your state’s Department of Labor to see if they offer a SEA program. (As of March 2020, the states of Delaware, Mississippi, New Hampshire, New York, and Oregon have active Self-Employment Assistance programs.)

Take advantage of the programs available to you. Many of these are paid for through state and federal funds and are not charity.  These are programs paid by tax dollars, and the goal is to get you back working again.

What To Do Now

Without a job to go to every day, your days may seem endless. (Unless you have children at home that you’re suddenly in charge of teaching.) Work on projects that you’ve put off because you’ve been busy with work.

Think about where you want your career to be one year from now and five years from now. Take the opportunity to move closer to these goals.

Focus on personal development. Are there skills you can work on developing? There are opportunities to take online classes for free. For example, the eight Ivy League universities are offering hundreds of online courses to the public at no charge. Many other course platforms are making courses available online for a free or low cost.

Check out:

With many of the free courses, you can also secure certification for an additional fee, which you can add to your résumé.

Speaking of résumés, now is also an excellent time to work with your résumé writer to update your résumé, LinkedIn profile, and other career search documents. When you’re back to work, and the economy is humming along again, you may find yourself wanting to look for a better job. Now might be the right opportunity to take the time to gather your accomplishments.

Seek support from others during this time. In-person gatherings are highly discouraged, but you can use technology like FaceTime, Skype, and Zoom to meet up virtually with friends, family, and even co-workers.

Be sure to take care of yourself during this time. Eat right. Try to get at least some exercise each day. Get plenty of sleep. Take advantage of the programs and services available to you, and be prepared for what’s next.

 

Getting Clarity in Your Job Search

When you were a child, you probably were asked this question quite often: What do you want to be whSerene businessman sitting at table feels satisfied accomplishing worken you grow up?

When you were a child, you probably were asked this question quite often: What do you want to be when you grow up? Once you got older, you probably thought you had the answer. But, with the number of career changes in the average job seeker’s life, you might find yourself wondering again: What does the future hold for me?

In one study conducted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, younger baby boomers held an average of 11.7 jobs from ages 18 to 48. During this same time, these individuals experienced an average of 5.6 periods of unemployment. With re-employment, some job seekers made minor or major career changes. A construction worker may decide to start his own home remodeling business, a newspaper reporter may become a TV news anchor, or a physician may quit, becoming a comedian.

Having “career clarity” about where you are going will help you identify what type of job you want to pursue. It can also give you insight into the specific skills and qualifications you need to be a candidate for the role, and it may even help you identify who is hiring for the type of position you are seeking. Once you’re ready to apply for a job (or contact an organization about an unadvertised opportunity), your professional résumé writer will need your clarity about your future career direction to help you create useful career documents to secure job interviews and offers.

Your résumé and LinkedIn profile are not a “career obituary” of where you’ve been. They should be a forward-looking marketing document that showcases your skills, education, and experience. A professional résumé writer can also take a diverse work history and create a cohesive, compelling career story showcasing your qualifications.

Finding the thread to sew together an eclectic work history, or seeing a pattern in your previous positions, can set you and your career documents apart. Assisting a prospective employer to understand who you are and what you can do for them is the key. So deciding what you want to be “when you grow up” or even just “next” is critical.

How often have you been talking to a colleague about their job search, and they say, “I’m not picky. I want a job that pays more.” It’s not about being picky — or not being picky — it’s about being focused.

If you wanted a different car, and you were asked, “What kind of car do you want?” you would benefit from being specific with your description. Two doors, or four? Sedan or SUV? Cloth seats or leather? New or used? What color? What make and model?

If you know what you want (whether a car or a career), it is much easier to find it. When you have achieved clarity about the job you’re seeking, you (or your résumé writer) can tailor your résumé and cover letter to showcase how you are the ideal candidate for the position — cutting through the clutter of hundreds of other applicants.

There are two paths to achieving “career clarity” — otherwise known as a crystal clear job target.

The first is through self-exploration. There are numerous online resources you can use to identify what you want in your next job — or your future career. The second is to enlist the assistance of a professional. You can hire a career coach to help you work through the process.

The Self-Help Route

The federal government has several excellent, free resources to help guide your research. These include:

The Occupational Outlook Handbook:

https://www.bls.gov/ooh/

The OOH provides career information on job responsibilities, education and training, pay, and the outlook for hundreds of occupations.

O*NET Online:

http://www.onetonline.org/

O*NET Online provides detailed descriptions of the world of work, including the daily aspects of a particular job and the qualifications and interests of the typical worker in that field.

My Next Move:

http://www.mynextmove.org/

My Next Move is a site sponsored by the U.S. Department of Labor. It is an interactive tool for job seekers to learn more about their career options. The website identifies tasks, skills, salary information, and more for over 900 different careers. It also integrates the O*NET Interest Profiler, which offers personalized career suggestions based on a person’s interests and level of work experience.

CareerOneStop Toolkit (Formerly America’s Career InfoNet)

http://www.careeronestop.org/Toolkit

The Toolkit is a “one-stop-shop” to find information about careers, training, skills, jobs, wages, state and local resources, and more.

You can also take a variety of online assessments and career inventories to discern your career path. Keep in mind, however, that these may not be scientifically valid. However, they may help remind you of areas of interest that could potentially lead you in a new career direction.

Getting Professional Help

If you want to go beyond your research, consider engaging a professional to help you identify your career direction.

Career coaches (also sometimes referred to as “career counselors”) can help you assess your interests, skills, and values, investigate career options, and define a career path. Some states require individuals to be licensed to call themselves a career counselor. Career coaches may have a counseling degree, certified in life coaching, or certified through professional organizations. The key is finding a fit for your particular needs — ask people you know for recommendations. Talk to several coaches and make sure it’s the right fit.

Your career coach may use a variety of tools and methods to help guide you through the career exploration process. These can include career testing, conducted assessments and exercises, and interviews.

You can find career coaches in university alumni centers, community agencies, in private practice, and potentially in your state’s Department of Labor. The cost may range from nothing (when seeking assistance from your state’s Department of Labor) to several thousand dollars to work with a clinically trained professional in private practice throughout several weeks or months.

 

SECRETS TO AN INTERVIEW-WINNING FIRST RÉSUMÉ

You’ve never had a résumé before. Maybe you’ve never needed one. But now you do and you don’t know where to start.Man with resume paper

The primary purpose of the résumé is to get you the opportunity to interview for the job. Everything you do — and include — should focus on this goal.

Your résumé should be targeted to be effective. If you don’t know what you want, it’s going to be difficult for the reader to understand. The first step is to determine what skills, experience, and education you will need for your target job.

The late résumé guru Yana Parker used to say, “A résumé without a job target is like a book without a title.”

Understand that your résumé is not a “career obituary.” It will not — and should not — include everything you’ve ever done in your career.

It still needs to be accurate, but you don’t need to list every job you’ve ever held. Nor do you have to list every aspect of the responsibilities of the position.

Your résumé is not a legal document, unlike a job application that asks you to list all your career experience and that you sign, acknowledging that the information is accurate and complete.

Instead, your résumé is a marketing document.

The most important thing to remember is: The résumé is not about what you want — it’s what you can offer to an employer.

In her book, “Résumé Magic,” author Susan Britton Whitcomb explains there are ten main reasons that motivate employers to hire. These include your ability to help the company:

  • Make money
  • Save money
  • Save time
  • Make work easier
  • Solve a specific problem
  • Be more competitive
  • Build relationships/an image
  • Expand business
  • Attract new customers
  • Retain existing customers

Everything you put in the résumé — or don’t put in the résumé — should relate to the job that you’re seeking, demonstrating to the person with authority to hire you for that job what you can do for the company in that position. When trying to decide whether or not something is relevant, think about the hiring manager.

Technology has changed the hiring process in some ways, but the essence is still the same: How can you attract the attention of the person who has the power to hire you and get the opportunity to get in front of him or her and demonstrate you’re the right fit for the job?

If you are submitting your résumé online, your résumé may go into an applicant tracking system, which is software that helps to hire managers track applications and select which candidates to interview.

Applicant tracking systems — and the integration of technology into the application process — underscore the importance of tailoring your résumé and cover letter for the role you’re seeking. If there are specific words and phrases used in the job announcement, make sure to include them in your résumé. You can’t merely create a résumé and use it to apply to 100 different jobs. Not only is that inefficient, but it’s ineffective.

Résumés are not “one size fits all.” You can’t expect a résumé focused on one type of role to open doors for you in another career field. A résumé written for a job as a middle school principal is not likely to generate interviews for a role as a sales professional. Nor is a résumé written for a social media specialist going to work for someone applying as an executive assistant. There may be aspects of the résumé that you can use in both versions of the résumé, but you can’t use the same document.

Nor can you copy someone else’s résumé — even if it’s incredible — and expect it to work for you in landing your dream job. If the résumé does land you an interview, you need to be able to speak to the experience and accomplishments described. You not only have to walk the walk, but you also have to talk the talk.

Tell a story with your résumé. How did what you’ve done in the past lead you to the right combination of skills, experience, and education for the job you want? Who are you? What sets you apart? What can you do for the company that no one else does?

If you are a recent graduate with little to no work experience in the field you’ve studied and are targeting, your most robust qualifications are your just-completed education and any internships, projects, or relevant volunteer experience.

A few tips for your first résumé:

  • Have a clear job target in mind. If you’re applying for similar positions within a career field, the body of your résumé won’t change too much. But you will want to customize it with keywords and specific phrases that tie into the position as well as the culture of the company you are targeting. Don’t have a particular company in mind? Find job postings for 3-5 positions you’d be interested in and use these to inform the content you include.
  • Make sure the résumé is visually appealing. The résumé should be designed to appeal to a human reader, even if it initially will be electronically submitted (and likely will go through applicant tracking system software).
  • Focus on accomplishments. “Past performance is the best predictor of future results.” Hiring managers can get a sense of what you can do for them by what you’ve accomplished in your previous jobs. Employers want to hire people who can generate results for them. Outlining the challenges, you tackled, the actions you took to solve the problem, and the results you produced can be a powerful way to attract the attention of a hiring manager. Quantify the results in terms of numbers (money and percentages are particularly powerful).
  • Follow the conventional style. Résumés use a unique style of writing that emphasizes brevity. Résumés use a version of the first-person style, but omit the subject (“I,” “me,” and “my”) and most articles (“a,” “an,” “the,” “my,” etc.), except when doing so would negatively impact the readability of the sentence. Use present tense for activities currently being performed, and past tense for past activities and achievements. Emphasize action verbs (“direct,” “manage,” “develop,” etc.”) instead of passive descriptions of your activity (“responsible for,” etc.).
  • Remember to emphasize what makes you valuable to your next employer, not what you want. Go back to the employer buying motivators list and look for opportunities to showcase how you can be an asset to your employer in one or more of these areas. The résumé should include everything the hiring manager needs to know about you to decide to interview you. It should ignite the interest of the hiring manager, making you appear desirable and potentially valuable to the organization.
  • Experience is experience, even if you didn’t get paid for it. If some of your best accomplishments and most impressive experience comes from volunteer work, include it! Where have you gained experience through projects, internships, leadership roles, and community service?
  • Proofread it, then proofread it again. Print it out, set it aside for at least a day, and then come back and read it with a fresh set of eyes. Look for misspellings, inaccuracies in job titles and dates of employment, and grammatical errors.
  • Don’t go it alone. If you are overwhelmed by the idea of how to put these principles into action, consult with a professional résumé writer. The time and money you invest in having your résumé prepared professionally prepared may not only shorten your job search and help you land the interview, but it can give you confidence by arming you with a powerful job search tool that can help guide the interviewer to discover you’re precisely what the company needs!

 

A Job Seeker’s Guide – Employment Applications

Know The Rules

Get the job by knowing the employment rules…

You’ve spent hours writing your résumé — or may have invested hundreds of dollars hiring a professional résumé writer — and maybe even drafted a cover letter to accompany it. You now have all you need to apply for a job opportunity that caught your attention — or do you? At some point in the process, you’ll be required to complete a job application, which may seem redundant. After all, doesn’t the résumé cover everything the employer needs to know?

Employment Application Basics

Despite all the changes in résumé content and style — as well as how one looks for work and applies for jobs — one constant remain: The employment application is an essential part of the hiring process. From the employer’s perspective, the form serves some purposes that are not addressed in a résumé (and optional cover letter). These may vary, depending on the nature of the job and the preferences of the company; however, the following always applies:

  • An application is a legal document. Unlike a résumé, you are required to sign a form, confirming that all the information you included is accurate and that you have not omitted anything.
  • An application becomes part of your permanent file once you are hired. Both state and federal employment laws require employers to retain employment applications for at least one year.
  • At a minimum, an application requires you to provide information sufficient to demonstrate that you are legally permitted to be employed. Furthermore, an application enables an employer to request information you would not typically include on your résumés, such as contact information for immediate supervisors, reasons for leaving, or professional references.

The employment application is not a standardized form so every company may create its own as long as it adheres to regulations set by the government. 

Current Regulations

  • In earlier decades, almost any question was acceptable. It was not unusual to ask the applicant’s date of birth, marital status, or citizenship. Things that were once okay are now prohibited by numerous federal laws that turned the tables in the applicant’s favor. Under these laws, employment applications/employers cannot inquire about the following:
  • That last point is quite complex, sparking debates about what are — and are not — lawful questions, and leaving jobseekers confused and anxious.
  • Race, religion, gender, and national origin: Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits direct — as well as indirect — questions that allude to race, gender, and
  • The employment application is not a standardized form so every company may create its own as long as it adheres to regulations set by the government.

That last point is quite complex, sparking debates about what are — and are not — lawful questions, and leaving jobseekers confused and anxious.

Current Regulations

In earlier decades, almost any question was acceptable. It was not unusual to ask the applicant’s date of birth, marital status, or citizenship. Things that were once okay are now prohibited by numerous federal laws that turned the tables in the applicant’s favor. Under these laws, employment applications/employers cannot inquire about the following:

  • Race, religion, gender, and national origin: Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits direct — as well as indirect — questions that allude to race, gender, and ethnicity. Inquiries into the color of eyes/hair; whether the applicant is married, single, divorced, or separated; number and ages of dependent children; requiring a prefix (Mr., Mrs., Ms., or Mrs.); or questions about the observance of religious holidays are all unlawful. The anti-discrimination provision of the Immigration Reform and Control Act prohibits employers from discriminating against an applicant because he or she is not a U.S. citizen. The Form I-9, rather than an employment application, is the appropriate forum to determine an applicant’s citizenship status.
  • Age: The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 protects employees 40 years of age and above. It is permissible to ask an applicant if he or she is under 18 and, if so, to state his or her age (to ensure the applicant meets minimum age requirements of the job and/or to ensure the employer does not accidentally violate state law regarding the employment of minors regarding hours worked or specific work responsibilities). However, it is unlawful to request a date of birth or include the specific question, “How old are you?” Unfortunately, one can roughly calculate an applicant’s age by asking when he or she graduated from high school.
  • Disabilities and medical conditions: The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 prohibits any inquiries about past or current health problems and medical conditions, disabilities, or on-the-job injuries. Even asking for the applicant’s height and weight is considered unlawful, as it may discriminate against certain demographic groups.

As you can see, it’s been more than 25 years since any significant regulations were put in place to protect job applicants from discrimination. Other employment application practices that are still in place include inquiries about an applicant’s criminal history, credit standing, and salary history, all of which can negatively impact a job seeker. Fortunately, there are grassroots initiatives taking hold, and new regulations being adopted at the federal, state, and municipal level all across the country.

Applicant Credit Checks

The Fair Credit Reporting Act (FRCA) is a federal law that governs how a credit reporting agency handles your credit information. It is designed to protect the integrity and privacy of your credit information. The FRCA permits employers to request credit reports on job applicants. A 2010 study from the Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM) estimated that 60 percent of companies checked some (or all) job applicants’ credit reports.

Federal law permits employers to use credit history as a basis for denying employment and even rejecting any applicant who refuses a credit check. When applying for jobs, it is essential to know your legal rights regarding credit checks.

Employers using credit reports to screen job applicants must do the following:

  • Obtain your written permission to request a credit report. The FCRA requires the notice to be “clear and conspicuous” and not mixed with another language. Read each application carefully and pay attention to what you are signing.
  • Notify you before they take “adverse action” (in this case, failing to hire) based in whole or in part on any information in the credit report.
  • Give you a copy of the credit report and a written summary of your rights.
  • Provide you with an opportunity to dispute the information contained in the report (typically three to five business days) before making a final decision.

Potential employers see a modified version of your credit report. Information that might violate equal employment regulations — such as birth year and marital status is omitted, as is your credit score and account numbers.

As of February 2013, eight states (California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington) have passed legislation to restrict the use of credit checks in employment, and dozens of additional cities and states have introduced bills to do so.

At the same time, however, these laws include numerous exemptions that allow certain employers to continue conducting credit checks — even when there is no evidence that credit history is relevant to job performance. Check your state’s labor department or your city government to find if you are covered by any applicable laws.

The Equal Employment for All Act, introduced to Congress in 2013, would amend the FCRA to prohibit employers from considering credit reports in the hiring process, except for jobs that require a security clearance, are in the public sector, or are related to financial services. As of November 2018, that bill continues to languish in the House Financial Services Committee.

In the meantime, there are things you can do to protect yourself:

  • Check your credit report before you begin applying for jobs. You are entitled to one free copy of your credit report every 12 months from each of the three nationwide credit reporting companies. Order online from annualcreditreport.com, the only authorized website for free credit reports, or call 1-877-322-8228. You will need to provide your name, address, social security number, and date of birth to verify your identity.
  • Flag negative-yet-accurate information by contacting the credit bureau and asking to attach a 100-word explanation to your report of the extenuating circumstances that led to the negative situation.
  • Give your permission, when requested, to access your credit report. Unless you live in one of the states mentioned (California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington) and are in an exempt category, you have a higher shot of being shown the door if you refuse the employer access.
  • Don’t panic. Even if your credit report contains some negative information, you’re not necessarily out of the running. Only 10 percent of employers reported on an SHRM survey that a clean credit history was the most crucial variable in deciding whether to hire someone and 80 percent of companies still hired candidates with damaging information on their credit reports.