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Follow VPR's statehouse coverage, featuring Pete Hirschfeld and Bob Kinzel in our Statehouse Bureau in Montpelier.

Despite Opposition, Vt. Employers Can Still Have Your Facebook Password

Sen. Patrick Leahy wants to know why Facebook allowed a political consulting firm to obtain the personal information of over 50 million of its customers
Taylor Dobbs
Despite a push by privacy advocates, Vt. employers can still require job applicants to share access to their social media accounts on sites like Facebook.

A push by privacy advocates last year to protect job applicants from being required to give prospective employers access to their social media accounts has fallen flat.

A legislative report published this week said the committee tasked with exploring the issue was unable to agree on any recommendations for the legislature. That inconclusive report led Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, to a dead end on an issue he thought would be an easy sell.

"Quite frankly, I was surprised at the response to the bill," Sears said Tuesday. Sears, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he hadn't read the report, but he was "very disappointed" that the committee wasn't able to make significant progress.

The bill Sears introduced last year was designed to create legal protection for Vermonters in the job application process so that they couldn't be compelled to give would-be employers access to their social media accounts, but the Senate instead referred the issue to the study committee.

"I think people deserve to have certain respect for social media, that that's not going to be used by employers," Sears said.

Maryland was the first state to pass such a bill, and a number of states have followed, but Vermont's effort remains troubled. Sears said there is no bill in the 2014 legislative session that would protect applicants, but the protections could be pushed through as an amendment on a larger bill.

At least one major employer - the Vermont State Police - uses the practice to screen job applicants, the study said.

"Currently, during the background check process, VSP asks job applicants to log onto their Facebook and scroll through pictures and links," the report said. "Some states have prohibited this type of inquiry, also known as 'shoulder surfing.'"

The study committee also raised questions about how the social media checks might interface with federal discrimination laws.

Committee members noted, the report said, "that allowing access to a person's social media account may cause unintended liability to the employer, such as a discrimination claim if the access to the hiring entity revealed otherwise protected information, such as health care issues or sexual orientation." Employers are not allowed to ask for or use such information in hiring decisions.

Despite the report's lack of recommendations, Sears said the issue remains important.

"I can't introduce a bill this year because it's too late," he said. "But I hope that we'll at least reconsider this issue."