Workers Wanted, But Only If Working

July 27, 2011

Young job seekers often complain about a catch-22. Employers want to see work experience on the resume, but how can they get it when no one will hire them?

The National Employment Law Project reports another, truly perverse version of the catch-22. Employers and staffing agencies, with help from online job posting services, are screening out applicants because they’re unemployed.

If you need a job, they don’t want you. Period.

For about a month this spring, NELP reviewed job postings on four of the biggest online sites. It looked for postings identified by employer or staffing agency while also, it says, “seeking a diverse sample from across the United States.” This, I take it, means that it didn’t look at all postings from an identifiable source.

NELP found more than 150 “exclusionary” ads — most of them specifically stating that applicants had to be currently employed. Postings were by employers of all sizes and in all parts of the country. Jobs were white collar, blue collar and service sector and “at virtually every skill level.”

Tip of the iceberg, as NELP acknowledges.

In some cases, for example, the exclusion isn’t communicated in an online posting, but by human resources directors to the headhunters they’re using.

There are also reported cases where applicants got as far as an initial interview only to be told that they’d been out of work too long. As with some of the online postings, “too long” is apparently more than six months.

At this point, nearly 6.3 million jobless workers who are actively looking have been unemployed for at least 27 weeks, i.e., long enough to be arbitrarily screened out of jobs they’re otherwise qualified for.

So unemployment discrimination, as NELP calls it, could — and probably does — affect a broad spectrum of jobless workers.

But not equally.

As I wrote back in February, the Pew Fiscal Analysis Initiative found that long-term unemployment rates were highest for older workers — and had increased exponentially.

In December 2010, 55% of jobless workers ages 55-64 had been unemployed for longer than the magic six-months cutoff. Percent even higher for those 65 and older.

Panelists at a public meeting convened by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission cited similar disproportionate impacts on women, people with disabilities and racial and ethnic minorities.

At this point, the unemployment rate for blacks is double the rate for whites — about what it was at the time of the meeting.

Comparable figures on long-term unemployment are hard to come by. Last spring, however, the percent of blacks unemployed for more than a year was 8% higher. A surprising 10% higher rate for Asian Americans too.

Thus, “any practice that disadvantages currently unemployed workers relative to similar employed workers will have a disproportionate negative impact on people of color,” said Algernon Austin, the Economic Policy Institute’s lead expert on race, ethnicity and the economy.

The very fact of the meeting suggests that EEOC is considering whether policies and practices that exclude jobless people from applicant pools are a violation of the equal opportunity protections in federal civil rights laws.

There are several things it can do if it decides they are. But proving “disparate impact” can be tough. And EEOC has been short on resources for a very long time.

On the legislative front, Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) and Congressman Henry Johnson (D-GA) have introduced a bill that would, with limited exceptions, prohibit employers and employment agencies from screening out applicants or otherwise denying employment to people just because they’re unemployed.

Needless to say, this bill is going nowhere fast. Will probably die in the Republican-controlled House Committee on Education and the Workforce.

NELP and its partners have nevertheless ginned up attention to the cruel irony of denying jobless workers a chance to work just because they’re jobless. Researching this posting, I found lots of relevant news articles and editorials in both local and national press.

Some employers have reacted by deleting the current or recent employment requirement from their job ads. Others probably will. All this means, I think, is that the screening will go on in other ways.

Unless, of course, hiring agencies and human resources directors decide that the efficiency they purportedly achieve by ignoring candidates who don’t have jobs can deny them the best qualified, most motivated workers they could find.


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