Tattoos may be hurting job hunters

Thursday , July 25, 2013 - 1:01 PM

Carolyn Said

Luis Orozco had ferocious orange-and-black tigers snarling out from each of his calves.

Juan Velasquez had a massive red, white and blue eagle spread across his shoulder.

Yolanda Carretero had an old English-style “L’’ and flower on her left hand.

They were among several dozen people who flocked to a low-cost tattoo removal clinic in San Pablo, Calif. recently. Sponsored by the San Pablo Economic Development Corp., the monthly clinic is the first step of the city’s Removing Barriers program that soon will add training on job-readiness and fiscal responsibility.

While tattoos are widespread -- a quarter of adults age 30 to 39 have at least one tattoo, while a third of 25- to 29-year-olds are tattooed, a recent Harris Poll found -- career experts say they can be a barrier to employment.

‘‘People with visible tattoos can face significant boundaries,” said Leslay Choy, general manager of the economic development group. “I’ve had bank vice presidents tell me they have back-office employees who are great, but they cannot promote them to being tellers because bank customers have certain expectations. We have one woman who was offered a promotion, but only on the condition that she keep all her tattoos covered. She had ‘sleeves’ all the way down to her wrists. Finding professional clothing that covered her all the way down all year long in her size is very difficult.”

Gabriela Diaz of San Pablo, a dental assistant, said her neck tattoo -- her last name in elaborate letters -- makes it harder to get a job.

At one job, she wore turtlenecks for the six-month probation period.

Her current boss offered to pay for the removal. But she also was motivated to set an example for her three children, ages 5, 6 and 9. “I don’t want them to get tattooed, so I need to practice what I preach,” she said.

Claire, a college senior who declined to give her last name, said she was having her foot tattoo of masquerade masks removed to prepare her for job hunting when she graduates.

‘‘It’s a real concern for me. I feel it’s a really big obstacle in looking for a job,” she said. She’s had employers at department stores and a county department ask her to keep it covered.

Employers can prohibit visible tattoos as part of a dress code, and most want to set clear policies so it doesn’t appear they’re discriminating based on lifestyle. But job applicants -- who typically have a difficult time proving “failure to hire” claims under any circumstances -- have little recourse if they think they were rejected for having tattoos.

The tattoo clinic, which started four months ago, is one aspect of a larger program to launch in September that will include job skills such as writing cover letters, negotiating conflict, taking directions and career advancement. Another component deals with fiscal responsibility, such as planning ahead to avoid using high-cost check-cashing services. Participants who complete the training will have some of their tattoo fees refunded.

Depending on size, color and whether it was professionally inked, a tattoo may take from six to 10 sessions to remove.

‘‘My little girl is going to kindergarten this fall and she wants to know what this says,” said Elizabeth Lopez of Antioch, pointing to the slogan “Trust No 1” on her neck. “I tell her it’s my name; I don’t want her to believe she shouldn’t trust anyone.” Now as she takes courses to become a medical assistant, she’s worried it could stigmatize her in the job market. “I got this in a friend’s garage when I was 14. I let some guys convince me it was cool.”

She and others at the clinic found that erasing the ink is much harder than getting it in the first place.

‘‘It’s the worst pain I’ve ever felt in my life,” said Tuan of San Jose, who declined to give his last name. “It’s a lot more painful than it was to get a tattoo. I got one on impulse when I was younger and have been regretting it for the past few years.”

Christina Chan, the nurse operating the laser machine, outfitted each client in goggles and offered an orange stress ball to squeeze while she administered brief laser pulses to their tattoo, then admonished them to keep icing the spot all day. She works for Hayward’s Monarch Laser, which rents its $100,000 laser machine out to dermatologists and plastic surgeons, as well as removal clinics.

Not everyone at the tattoo-removal clinic came to improve their job prospects. A sizable number were there to erase an ex-boyfriend’s or ex-girlfriend’s name.

‘‘My wife doesn’t like it,” Jose Magdleno of San Pablo said of his forearm tattoo of an “ex ex ex” girlfriend.

(Carolyn Said is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: csaid@sfchronicle.com; Twitter: @csaid. Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.shncom.)

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