Lack of transit leads to unemployment

Some 60 percent of American workers earn hourly wages. Of these, about half change jobs each year. The cost to U.S. businesses of worker attrition and lost productivity is $350 billion annually, according to Evolv, a workforce science company.

What do many employers do to address the employee turnover issue? They retain workforce science companies to administer personality tests and analyze applicant data.

Kenexa, an IBM company, in 2011 tested more than 30 million applicants for thousands of clients. Kenexa believes that a lengthy commute raises the risk of attrition in call-center and fast-food jobs. It asks applicants for those jobs to describe their commute by picking options ranging from “less than 10 minutes” to “more than 45 minutes.”

The longer the commute, the lower their recommendation score for these jobs. Applicants also can be asked how many times they have moved; people who move more frequently have a higher likelihood of leaving.

Low-income families tend to move much more frequently than their higher-income neighbors and the general population. A 2011 study showed that a wide range of complex forces appeared to drive residential instability in general: the formation and dissolution of households, an inability to afford one’s housing costs, loss of employment, lack of a safety net, and lack of quality housing or a safer neighborhood.

Painting with the broad brush of distance from work, commute time and moving frequency may result in well-qualified applicants being excluded. (The Kenexa insights are generalized correlations; they say nothing about any particular applicant.)

Are there any groups of people who have longer commutes and move more frequently than others? Yes: lower-income persons who, according to the U.S. Census, are disproportionately black, Hispanic and the mentally ill.

Through the application of these “insights,” many low-income persons are electronically redlined, meaning employers will pass over qualified applicants because they live (or don’t live) in certain areas, or because they have moved. The reasons for moving do not matter — whether it is to find a better school for their children, to escape domestic violence, or as a consequence of job loss due to a company shutdown.

When Clayton County killed its bus system in 2010, it had nearly 9,000 daily riders. Many of those riders used the service to commute to their jobs. The transit shutdown increased commuting times, as persons had to find alternate ways to get to work, and increased housing mobility, as persons relocated in order to be closer to their jobs to mitigate the commuting time. Through no fault of their own, they were made less employable by the many companies who use workforce science companies.

Achieving the American dream is hard enough without being furthered burdened by the “dictatorship of the data” — letting data govern us in ways that may do as much harm as good.

Roland Behm is a lawyer who lives in Sandy Springs.

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.