Obama proposes letting the jobless sue for discrimination

Advocates for the unemployed have cheered a push by the Obama administration to ban discrimination against the jobless. But business groups and their allies are calling the effort unnecessary and counterproductive.

The job creation bill that President Obama sent to Congress earlier this month includes a provision that would allow unsuccessful job applicants to sue if they think a company of 15 more employees denied them a job because they were unemployed.

The provision would ban employment ads that explicitly declare the unemployed ineligible, with phrases like "Jobless need not apply." As The Lookout has reported, such ads appear to have proliferated in recent years, prompting an inquiry by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Democratic lawmakers in both the House and the Senate have introduced similar measures. Obama said recently that discrimination against the unemployed makes "absolutely no sense," especially because many people find themselves out of work through no fault of their own.

Advocates for employers oppose the proposed ban. "We do not see a need for it," Michael Eastman of the Chamber of Commerce told the New York Times.

Lawrence Lorber, a labor law specialist who represents employers, told the paper the president's proposal "opens another avenue of employment litigation and nuisance lawsuits."

Louie Gohmert, a Republican representative from Texas, went further. He told the Times that the proposal would send the following message: "If you're unemployed and you go to apply for a job, and you're not hired for that job, see a lawyer. You may be able to file a claim because you got discriminated against because you were unemployed."

The current downturn is characterized by a relatively low rate of layoffs, but still high unemployment. Many of the jobless have been out of work for an extended period. Around 14 million Americans are officially unemployed, of whom more than 6 million are considered "long-term unemployed," because they've been out of work for six months or more. The average duration of joblessness is currently 40 weeks, the highest in more than 60 years.

There is evidence that when people are out of work for an extended period, their skills atrophy and it becomes increasingly difficult for them to find new work.

Earlier this year, New Jersey passed a bill banning ads that tell the jobless not to apply. But it did not go as far as Obama's proposal, because it didn't explicitly allow workers to sue if they thought they were denied a job because they were unemployed.