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Help wanted — jobless need not apply

Zachary Roth
The Lookout

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longterm unemployed

In 2008, Michelle, a 53-year-old Illinois resident with 19 years experience in information technology, became another casualty of the Great Recession. More than a year later, after a long and fruitless job search, she finally heard from a headhunter who thought she sounded like a great fit for a post he was looking to fill.

But when Michelle told him how long she had been out of work, the headhunter turned apologetic: His client, he said, wouldn't accept people who had been unemployed for more than six months. Michelle would go on to stay jobless for so long that she ultimately exhausted all her unemployment benefits, and, for the first time in her life, was forced to apply for food stamps and welfare.

Michelle's tale was recounted at a recent Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) meeting devoted to the issue of hiring discrimination against the unemployed. As the commission found, Michelle's experience is far from unique. No one officially tracks how many job openings explicitly bar the unemployed, but several news reports since last summer have uncovered numerous online job postings that require candidates be employed during the application process. One such listing was posted by the cellphone giant Sony Ericsson--a move the company later called a "mistake."

Job-placement professionals say that over the last year, more and more employers have made it clear they won't consider job candidates who aren't working. "A lot of our recruiters have had clients who have come across this," Matt Deutsch of TopEchelon.com, which brings recruiters together to collaborate in finding jobs for candidates, told The Lookout, calling the practice "unfortunate."

With the number of Americans who have been out of work for six months or longer at a whopping 6.2 million, and with 4.7 unemployed workers for every job opening, advocates for the jobless say this growing form of hiring discrimination creates another hurdle for the increasingly desperate ranks of the unemployed. "At a moment when we all should be doing whatever we can to open up job opportunities to the unemployed, it is profoundly disturbing that the trend of deliberately excluding the jobless from work opportunities is on the rise," Christine Owens, who runs the National Employment Law Center, told the EEOC.

Some experts say that discrimination against the jobless, as currently practiced, may violate civil rights laws--a question the commission is now considering. In itself, such discrimination isn't illegal. (New Jersey is exploring legislation that would prohibit job ads telling the unemployed not to apply.) But it is illegal to discriminate on the basis of race or age. And African-Americans and older workers are disproportionately represented among the long-term unemployed--meaning they may be bearing the brunt of discrimination against the jobless.

The EEOC declined to say whether it's investigating specific cases of potential violations.

Some employers have said they're unwilling to hire unemployed workers because they believe that if a worker has once been let go, that's a sign that he or she is probably not a great hire. "People who are currently employed … are the kind of people you want as opposed to people who get cut," one recruiter told the Atlanta Journal Constitution in October.

And as Federal Reserve Chair Ben Bernanke has said, when people are out of work for a long time, their skills can erode, which may understandably make them less attractive to employers.

But Deutsch said that a bias against the jobless is also a time-saving device for companies that may themselves be making do with less, thanks to the downturn. "If you've got a huge stack of submissions, and you want to get through them quickly, [you can say] 'OK, all the people who are not currently employed, forget them,' " Deutsch explained. "That's gonna cut down on your workload."

However, aside from the damage that this practice does to unemployed candidates, employers who adopt it may be shooting themselves in the foot, since they're probably screening out qualified applicants who were laid off through no fault of their own. "To think that that's going to bring you all the qualified candidates you want to see is probably not the case," Deutsch said.

(A career center specialist in Oregon helps job seeker Paula Morgan, who has been unemployed for the last nine months, Jan. 7, 2011: Rick Bowmer/AP)

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