Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Background check delays create hiring bottleneck

- By Lauren Rosenblatt

Jane Yanosick is under pressure from employers.

As president of Downtownba­sed KlinkCheck background services, Ms. Yanosick and her team feel the pressure from human resources directors, who are under pressure themselves from the higher-ups at their companies to hire workers and hire quickly.

KlinkCheck, part of the business management consultant company Klink, runs background checks, generally the last part of the process to get a new hire through the door. At a time when workers are in demand and seemingly in short supply, the background check process has been creating a bottleneck in the workforce supply chain.

As an example, Ms. Yanosick pointed to one client in particular, a housing company in Florida.

“I’m not saying they’re not building the houses,” she said. “But they’re not having as many people as they would like.”

A typical background check sifts through the last seven years of an applicant’s history, from education to work experience to criminal records. COVID-19, and the resulting health and safety restrictio­ns, slowed down much of that process.

Without anyone answering phones at the admissions office, it takes longer to verify a potential hire’s college degree. The same goes for checking past employment. At the courts, without clerks going in every day, it’s harder to pull the paper trail outlining and explaining any criminal history.

“I think a lot of people think you press a button — Why wouldn’t you just have everything?” Ms. Yanosick said. “They don’t realize this person’s lived in four counties in the last seven years, and it’s not all in Pennsylvan­ia.

“I don’t think a lot of people understand the background of it all.”

Based on her experience, Ms. Yanosick estimates it normally takes one to three days to complete a background check. These days, it may take another two.

Last November and December, according to ScoutLogic, a background screening company based in Chicago, 14 states reported an extra three days to process criminal background checks. Maine, the state with the longest delay, added an average of 11 days to the process.

Pennsylvan­ia, at that time, added only half a day.

As courts and businesses have reopened, the worst of the delays seem to have eased, but a survey last month from screening company Accurate Background, based in Irvine, Calif., found nearly a third of respondent­s said individual background screenings were still taking longer than usual.

More than 60% of those surveyed said the delay was due to government slowdowns and shutdowns.

Checkr, a background screening company headquarte­red in San Francisco, keeps a running list of court closures and “general delays” in counties around the country, helping to shed light on when to expect delays in the process.

Based on the list updated earlier in October, one county in Tennessee is operating by appointmen­t only. Another in Kentucky is limiting researcher­s to one visit a week. In Wayne, Ga., the list says: “Researcher­s are having difficulty completing searches in this jurisdicti­on. Expect delays.”

“The real impact of COVID for background­s has been in the former shutdowns. As businesses shut down, so did data sources,” said Tim Dowd, the CEO of Accurate. “They’ve all come back at different rates.”

Changing the process

For workers, a three-day delay to get results isn’t likely to impact a job offer, although they might miss out on a paycheck or two if they live in Maine.

But for employers, the slowdown can make it difficult to keep up with operations while they wait to fill openings. In an already tight labor market, some employers changed internal processes to make sure they didn’t lose potential hires while waiting for courts to sort through paperwork.

For some businesses, that meant waiving the background check altogether. About8% of businesses from the Accurate survey said they were no longer conducting background checks.

Kimberly Kisner, a partner in the employment practices law group at Pittsburgh­firm Leech, Tishman, Fuscaldo and Lampl, said that’s a risky move. “Some of them may get burned for failing to do those background checks,” she said.

Mary Salony, interim director of the Tri-County Workforce Investment Board, an economic developmen­t agency in Butler, added that many employers are still stuck in the first step of the process: searching for employees.

“It doesn’t seem to get to the background check,” she said.

Some businesses have started hiring conditiona­lly, according to Mr. Dowd from Accurate. In those cases, the worker would get on the payroll before the background screen was complete. If the check later raised red flags, that employee could be at risk of losing the new gig.

At times, as a result of high employee turnover, when Accurate reached out to clients to say a court had reopened and background screening could move ahead, some workers had already left.

“Nobody was really prepared for that — You never reallysusp­end a background check and then pick it back up again,” Mr. Dowd said.

The pandemic also raised some new questions for the industry: If someone is laid off and a company brings the person back within a few months, does it make sense to run another full background check?

“It used to be one size fits all on background checks. I think companies are rethinking that different jobs may require a different type of check,” Mr. Dowd said. “You’re seeing more thoughtful­ness, creativity, all within the bounds of compliance on background checks.

“Maybe the pandemic accelerate­d some of that thinking.”

Susie Puskar, chief program officer with Partner4Wo­rk, a workforce developmen­t group in Downtown, said the trend to rethink what goes into background checks has been ongoing for years, particular­ly when looking at an applicant’s criminal history.

There’s more focus now on creating opportunit­ies for people who have been incarcerat­ed or have been involved with the justice system, she said, as employers recognize those individual­s “make an excellent workforce.”

In those cases, some employers have chosen to forgo the background check altogether while others still do the screen but don’t eliminate candidates based on some history that may come up.

“I think in part employers really recognize that sometimes blanket policies ... mean they can’t hire someone who would be a really good fit for their organizati­on,” Ms. Puskar said.

“Now as the labor market has tightened up and employers have needed to tap additional sources for employees, we’re starting to see more changes,” she said.

Adapting as an industry

Just like any industry, companies running background checks had to deal with a pandemic that suddenly changed the dynamic and availabili­ty of work.

“When COVID hit, we got double hammered,” said Les Rosen, founder and CEO of Employment Screening Resources, a background check firm based in Novato, Calif.

First, the logistical hit. Courts were closed. Businesses were closed. People were still trying to figure out how to check their voicemail from the landline on their work desk without actually picking up that phone. Then, the financial hit. The background check industry is usually a leading indicator of the job market, Mr. Rosen said. When hiring stopped, so did business for companies running the checks.

“[Paycheck Protection Program] loans helped background firms stay afloat, the recovery started to occur, and courts began to reopen and people went back to work,” Mr. Rosen said. “But fast forward to delta, and now the problem is like any, like a lot of other industries, the background screening industry is having to hire like crazy.

“There suddenly was a need to bring staff back, and like many other industries, they don’t necessaril­y come back.”

Now, the industry is “tiptoeing toward change,” Mr. Rosen said, and considerin­g ways to automate parts of the process to make it more efficient. But change is slow.

“The problem with background­s screening is, it’s a lot more complex than people think,” he said. “Even if you speed up one part of the process, it doesn’t help until the entire report is done.

“A background check can only go as fast as its slowest element.”

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