Employer Discrimination Against the Unemployed Must End

When Michelle Chesney-Offutt was laid off from her job in 2008, just two days before Christmas and five days before her 19-year anniversary with an IT service provider, it was certainly bad enough.  Then, last year, after a daily and seemingly endless job search, she received a call from a headhunter, who had obtained her online resume, and was excited about her qualifications.  Eager to schedule an interview for Michelle with his client, the headhunter suddenly recanted when he noticed that she had been out for work for more than a year.

End Discrimination"When he realized this, he was very apologetic," she wrote to us recently, "but had to admit to me that he would not be able to present me for an interview due to the 'over 6 month unemployed' policy that his client adhered to."  The headhunter, she told us, explained to her that his client had expressly prohibited him from referring workers who had been unemployed for six months or more.  "He was embarrassed, and I think he felt guilty when he realized that I had been unemployed for more than a year, and therefore was automatically disqualified for the position."

"I also remember how I felt," Michelle said.  "Another slap in the face."

The 53-year old from Sandwich, Illinois, had been a hard-working, successful IT help desk supervisor, contracted for nearly two decades to service a major equipment manufacturer headquartered in Peoria, through a third-party provider.  Laid off, she was told, "due to the economic downturn" she had been engaged in an extensive and exhaustive job search for a year and a half when she got that call from the headhunter which suddenly lifted her hopes -- and then just as suddenly dashed them once again.

When she wrote to us, she explained that she had recently exhausted all 99 weeks of unemployment insurance benefits for which she had been eligible.  She's been without health insurance since the federal COBRA subsidy was discontinued, unable to afford the premiums on the income from her unemployment insurance.  And now those benefits too have ended.  The process of getting her mortgage restructured, and her monthly payments reduced, in turn affected her credit.  When I spoke with her this week, she was applying to SNAP for food stamps.  "I applied for welfare yesterday," she added.  "This is a first for me."

The issue of discrimination against unemployed workers by employers looking to hire has not yet received the attention it deserves.  Stories like this one about disturbing job ads began surfacing last summer.  This past fall, similar stories appeared in the press.  As we reported here in November, those stories and others prompted Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA) and fifty-eight members of Congress to urge an inquiry by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

While there is no federal legislation expressly prohibiting employers from barring unemployed workers from consideration in hiring, the practice may rise to a threshold level of "disparate impact" in that both older workers and minority workers are represented in disproportionately large numbers among the unemployed, and especially among the long-term unemployed.

Regardless of legal liability, in instances of discrimination by employers against the unemployed -- the practice is an outrage!

The latest jobs report from the Labor Department tallied more than 14.5 million Americans officially unemployed.  Of those, 6.4 million were unemployed for 27 weeks or more.  The official unemployment rate has been above 9 percent for 20 consecutive months.  And these continuing high levels of massive unemployment are themselves a primary drag on the ability of the economy to recover from the most severe and persistent downturn since the Great Depression.

Bringing unemployment down by putting unemployed workers back to work in good-paying, productive jobs is the most crucial component of any sustained economic recovery.  Yet, too many employers, it appears, just don't care.  Not only are they not creating enough jobs to bring down unemployment.  But, it appears, too often the job openings they do have are considered off-limits to unemployed workers.

Just how pervasive is the practice of discriminating against the unemployed?  A story by Laura Bassett in today's Huffington Post, titled 'How Employers Weed Out Unemployed Job Applicants, Others, Behind the Scenes', quotes a recruiter as saying that companies often tell them "'We don't want to see a resume from anyone who's not working.' It happens all the time."

Clearly, were it not for this discrimination, people like Michelle Chesney-Offutt could very well be working again today.  But ending this discriminatory practice will likely take more people like Michelle speaking up.

"Instead of being discriminated against for being unemployed," she said, "we need an unemployed workers affirmative action policy."


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