Work/Life

This Simple Job Hiring Requirement Can Reinforce Poverty

When you need a cellphone to apply for a job and you need a job to afford a cellphone, qualified candidates lacking tech can fall unfairly behind.
Two-factor authentication is supposed to keep email accounts secure. But it can also exclude some job seekers from getting an account. 
Two-factor authentication is supposed to keep email accounts secure. But it can also exclude some job seekers from getting an account. 

For many of us, a cellphone is an everyday device, but for job seekers, it can be a lifeline to connect them to or bar them from getting the job that will change their life.

A recent Twitter thread highlighted how a basic phone number requirement could inadvertently deter qualified candidates from applying for a job. Lisa Kaplan, the founder of Alethea Group, an organization that counters disinformation, said she was helping a homeless woman apply for a custodial job at a public library.

She helped her fill out basic biographical data, putting down the woman’s shelter for her home address, but then encountered an email address requirement. In order to create an email address with the providers Kaplan tried, the woman needed to have a phone number that could receive texts, Kaplan said. The woman only had the landline number for her shelter and did not end up completing the application with Kaplan.

Two-factor authentication is aimed at making your online accounts more secure by requiring an additional verification process, such as a push notification or text message sent to your phone, in addition to your password. But in the cases of job seekers without smartphones, it can be a deterrent.

“For me, it was an eye-opening moment,” Kaplan told HuffPost. “It is one of those barriers that you don’t always think of, and I think it just shows the nuance of these sorts of policies. What we’re trying to do is essentially balance the need for security and privacy but accessible internet for everyone. We have to get the right balance.”

When I tried to create an email account at several major providers without putting down a phone number, I couldn’t complete the registration process. Yahoo Mail (which is owned by HuffPost’s parent company, Verizon Media) and Zoho required me to enter a phone number. Google said a phone number is an optional requirement for Gmail. Some of my co-workers who tested it were able to set up an account without one, but when I tried it, I repeatedly got a request for my phone number to verify whether it was really me. ProtonMail and Outlook, meanwhile, did not require a phone number.

When asked about its phone requirement, Zoho’s chief strategy officer, Vijay Sundaram, said, “The email provider is responsible for preventing email fraud, like phishing and impersonation, and email malpractice, like spamming. This means accounts must be traceable and verifiable. This is particularly true in a world where people can use free accounts and operate maliciously from anywhere. This is the reason we have instituted thus requirement.”

Yahoo Mail gave a similar answer for its reasoning. A Yahoo Mail spokesperson said that, “Requiring a mobile phone is one way to prove identity and keep our users accounts safe and secure.” When asked about workarounds for people without phones, the spokesperson said that while the verification phone number was the current method for securing accounts and information, the company is “always exploring alternatives.”

Google's verification process prevented me from creating a Gmail account without putting down a cellphone number.
Google's verification process prevented me from creating a Gmail account without putting down a cellphone number.
Yahoo's cellphone requirement prevented me from setting up an email account.
Yahoo's cellphone requirement prevented me from setting up an email account.

“Email providers are increasingly relying on phone companies to do their anti-spam work, under the assumption that it’s hard for spammers to get large numbers of phone numbers,” said Jacob Hoffman-Andrews, a senior staff technologist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation who has written about two-factor authentication. “Unfortunately, that also means it’s hard for legitimate users who don’t have a phone to get an email account.”

How to get a free phone

One clear solution is to make it easier for people in need to have phones. There is a history of government programs that recognized the urgency of giving homeless individuals phones.

Community Voice Mail, a 1991 national initiative of Springwire and later Feeding America, gave homeless people a free voicemail number, which was a way for them to check messages from pay phones, social service agencies, or from the homes of friends and family members. Outreach staff would sometimes broadcast encouraging messages to participants about jobs in the area.

And it worked. As one beneficiary of the New Mexico program told a staff member, “I have a job at a hostel. It came from a blanket broadcast that you sent out for a job that came with housing and I was lucky enough to get it. I am just so ecstatic.” Unfortunately, that program ended in 2015 due to lack of funding.

Today, homeless individuals can get free phones through government-subsidized Lifeline programs, such as SafeLink Wireless, Q Link or Assurance Wireless. But there are additional hurdles to getting the phones, said Zach Bruns, a Wisconsin-based mental health clinician who works with homeless individuals.

“The person has to qualify for a state program like Medicaid or SNAP (in Wisconsin it’s called FoodShare) and they must have an address where the phone can be mailed (also a challenge for someone who is homeless and has no mailing address),” Bruns said. “We have been able to negotiate sending a government phone to a business address (e.g., our office); however, this generally involves getting on the phone with someone from one of the free cellphone companies and negotiating address details.”

People who are not homeless may still not be able to afford the cost of a phone, or fixing a broken one, especially while out of work. There are basic and pay-as-you-go plans that provide relatively low-cost options. “If someone does have limited income ... there are a number of companies where people can get a basic cell phone plan for cheap ($30-$40/month),” Bruns said. “In Milwaukee, some popular companies include Boost Mobile, Cricket, and Metro PCS.”

Online job applications and tech platforms are not inclusive

Homeless job seekers already face overt discrimination from employers. Seventy percent of Washington, D.C., homeless respondents in a 2014 survey said they had been discriminated against by private businesses because they were homeless.

Sharing basic biographical information on an online job application can also be a barrier. For a study published in a 2017 issue of the Yale Law Journal, Sarah Golabek-Goldman, who has a J.D. and MBA, surveyed online application forms for 40 of America’s largest low-wage employers, including Walmart, Wendy’s, Domino’s Pizza, Starbucks and Target, and found that each required a job candidate to put down a home address if they wanted to move forward with a job application. For job seekers, writing down a shelter address put them at a disadvantage. “Everyone uses the shelter address, but the moment they see that ... there is a red flag ― no, there is a black flag on your resume,” said Anthony, a single father and homeless job seeker.

Homeless job seekers may get only one shot at applying online before giving up in discouragement. Mark Erpelding is the executive director of Open Access Connections, a Minnesota-based nonprofit that gives people in immediate crisis a community voicemail, while also working with government-eligible individuals to get a phone through an enTouch partnership.

“It is not a permanent barrier, but it is a barrier,” said Erpelding. “If you’re not having your basic needs met, you’re kind of in the state where ‘I’ve gotta get stuff done now.’ So if they can’t get something immediately done, they may just give up on the task and try to work on something else that would meet their immediate needs.“

Google Voice, a free online phone service, may seem like a viable alternative until you consider the reality of job seekers with mobile housing situations. To work properly, Google Voice requires a reliable internet connection and a phone to verify ― two requirements homeless individuals may not have. “That’s another Catch-22,” Erpelding said.

“My presumption of why that’s the case is that it’s not in [Google’s] key interest to provide a service for homeless, low-income people, it’s to provide a service to phone people so you can sync up with their devices and sync up their data and sync up with their programs,” he added. In response to a HuffPost query about its reasoning for the phone requirement, Google said that because Google Voice is a Google service, the company requires users to have a U.S. phone number, a Google account, and a computer or smartphone with internet access.

Job hunting can already be a demoralizing, crushing process. Not being able to get an email address because you don’t have a cellphone adds one more hardship to that list.

“Until you don’t have a reliable phone number, you really don’t realize how ingrained phone numbers are necessary in today’s society,” said Erpelding. “If you don’t have a reliable phone number, your ability to participate in everyday functions and achieve everyday self-sufficiency tasks is greatly hindered.”