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You've applied to a job, and your prospective employer is asking you to cover the cost of your own background check. Is this practice legal? Yes, with a few exceptions. We take a look at laws in different states that prohibit employers from asking employees or applicants to pay for background checks. Usually, when you interview for a job and consent to let your prospective employer conduct a background check on you, that's the extent of what you have to do for the process. That's because at most businesses, there is a policy in place that the company will cover background check expenses for any and all employees and applicants. However, there are situations in which the expense of the background check may fall upon you as the applicant. This can be a surprise for some job searchers, but it is legal with a few exceptions. So how can you know if a prospective employer is allowed to ask you to cover your own background check expenses?
The following states have laws on the books that expressly prohibit employers from requiring applicants to pay for their own background checks. Note that several of the laws requiring employers to pay for background screenings only apply to “statewide” checks which are checks run through a specific state agency, and not through the county courts (which is the usual way of doing a background check). So if your employer is running other types of checks—county searches, for instance, or multi-jurisdictional database checks, then they have full right to ask you to either help cover the expenses, or to pay them in full.
Iowa: Iowa is a state that has a law on the books pertaining to state agency background checks. Specifically, the law makes employers responsible for paying for criminal history checks run through the Division of Criminal Safety Investigations, a part of Iowa's Department of Public Safety. If the employer is running background checks through county courts, then the law does not apply and applicants or employees can be required to cover those expenses.
Kansas: Similar to Iowa, Kansas state law makes it illegal for an employer to require an applicant to pay for a state agency criminal background check. The law applies to criminal records obtained through "any State criminal justice agency." Again, county checks, criminal screenings run in other states, and multi-jurisdictional private database searches are not affected by this law, which means an applicant may still be required to pay for his or her own background check.
Kentucky: In Kentucky, it is "unlawful for any employer to require any employee or applicant for employment to pay the cost of a medical examination or the cost of furnishing any records required by the employer as a condition of employment." The "any records" caveat means that Kentucky employers must pay for any criminal background checks, driving record checks, civil checks, or any other similar personal history searches they choose to run on an applicant or employee. Unlike Iowa and Kansas, this law reaches beyond state agency criminal checks.
Louisiana: Louisiana has more laws relating to this subject than any other state in the union. Employers are required to cover expenses for criminal background checks, fingerprinting, medical exams, drug tests, and other searches or checks made on applicants or existing employees. The law applies to both public and private employees. As in Kentucky, your employer should not ask you to pay for your own employment background check in Louisiana.
Massachusetts: In Massachusetts, employers are not allowed to ask or require that their employees/applicants provide their own criminal background reports. The law is unclear on whether this prohibits an employer from requiring an employee to pay for (as opposed to provide) the background report. The law does read that there is "limited exception" to this rule, though, so you may have to do further research in order to determine whether or not you or your employer might be one of those exceptions. Minnesota: Employers in Minnesota cannot legally require applicants or employees to pay for "expenses incurred in criminal or background checks, credit checks, or orientation." This law is not limited to state criminal checks, and pertains to many types of background screening you might face during the application process.
Vermont: Vermont state law says that employers cannot ask an applicant or employee "to obtain, submit personally, or pay for a copy of his or her criminal conviction record from the Vermont Criminal Information Center." Comparable to the statutes in Iowa and Kansas, this Vermont law only applies to state criminal checks. Any other type of background screening, such as a credit check or a multi-jurisdictional private database criminal search, can legally be covered by the applicant or employee.
States with No Relevant Legislation
If your state is not one of the seven listed above, then you are living in a place where no relevant legislation has yet been passed on this particular subject. Employers in these 43 states—from Michigan to Texas, and from New York to California—still have the freedom to ask that you pay to cover your own background check expenses. It doesn't matter if those expenses are incurred through county criminal screenings, state repository searches, or multi-jurisdictional private database checks. It also doesn't matter if you are being asked to cover the costs of a credit check, a driving history report, or a drug test. Without laws on the books, employers in these 43 states have the freedom to make you pay for any type of pre-employment background check—provided that it is not otherwise prohibited. Of course, that's not to say that all (or even most) employers in these states will exercise that freedom. As background checks have become more and more common as a component of the hiring process, more and more employers have also set aside budgets to pay for the background checks of their applicants. Businesses that run periodic checks on their existing employees are even more likely to cover the expenses.
More common is the practice for volunteers to be asked to pay for their own background checks. For instance, when a parent wants to volunteer in the classroom, or coach their child's sports team, they will customarily be asked by the school or the league to pay for a background check. Even in the states where employees can't be asked to cover background check expenses, volunteers can still be expected to pay their own way.
The bottom line is that you can know ahead of time whether or not an employer might ask you to cover your own background check expenses. After all, you don't want to challenge a prospective employer on this issue, or accuse them of breaking a law, if there is actually no law in place forbidding the practice. As in any other situation, the more you know, the better.