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Taking on unemployment bias

Despite job growth in February, the national unemployment rate remains at 7.7 percent, according to the National Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Of the more than 12 million Americans currently out of work, approximately 40 percent have been seeking a job for six months or more. Algernon Austin, who directs the Race, Ethnicity and the Economy program at the Economic Policy Institute, attributes the high unemployment rate to a large jobs deficit, growing skills gap and continued discrimination of unemployed job applicants.

The federal government banned hiring discrimination on the basis of gender, ethnicity, age and religion under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. However, no federal legislation exists prohibiting discrimination of job applicants on the basis of current employment status. In fact, some employers will require applicants to hold a position at the time of inquiry as illustrated by the ads listed below.

Connecticut Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro sponsored federal legislation last year which would prohibit such practices. She said in a written statement to Need to Know, “Unfortunately the House Republican majority failed to bring the legislation I introduced last year up for a vote. But I will continue to fight for the bill this year, am pleased to see action at the state level and am hopeful New York can pass their version of this law.”

New York City is at the forefront of this battle and City Council recently brought forth legislation that would not only prohibit such hiring discrimination but also allow applicants to sue employers if they were rejected on the basis of unemployment. As of 2012 the unemployment rate in NYC stood at 9.4 percent, which is well above both the national and state level.

“It is hard enough to find a job in today’s economy and the last thing New Yorkers need is another obstacle to obtaining one. Discriminatory practices have no place in our city,” said Deputy Majority leader Leroy Comrie in a press statement.

Though City Council voted in favor of the bill by an overwhelming consensus, Mayor Bloomberg vetoed the legislation. In a message regarding his veto, Bloomberg argued the ruling would make hiring decisions too difficult on businesses and put them at risk of frivolous lawsuits. Council Speaker Christine Quinn has fought Bloomberg on this issue and suggested there is enough support within City Council to overturn the mayor’s veto.

Hiring discrimination on the basis of employment status is currently banned in Washington D.C., Oregon and New Jersey. 15 other states considered similar bills in the 2012 legislative session. The bill was killed in every state other than Michigan, Pennsylvania and New York — where legislation remains pending.

Gary Burtless, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, argued in a Wall Street Journal article that employers are reluctant to hire the long-term unemployed because “their skills erode the longer they’re out of work.” Furthermore, business leaders question to what extent this type of hiring discrimination actually takes place.

Mitchel Hirsch is an unemployment advocate for the National Employment Law Project. He said in a phone interview that over the past two years his organization has received hundreds of calls complaining about the “unemployment bias.”

“We’d get calls like, I’ve got 20 years of experience. I lost my job six months ago. I’ve applied online. I posted my resume. A recruiter then contacted me. He said my qualifications were ‘absolutely perfect for the position he’s trying to fill.’ But then when it came to, ‘What are you doing right now?’ And the answer was ‘well I’m looking for a job because I’m unemployed.’ The recruiter would say ‘I’m really really sorry but I can’t forward your resume onto our client.’”

Dr. Austin at the Economic Policy Institute suggests discrimination against the unemployed has a disproportionately larger impact on people of color.

“The black unemployment rate is approximately double that of Caucasians,” says Austin. “For Hispanics that number is about 1.5. Thus they are more likely to be unemployed than whites and this discrimination re-enforces that phenomena.” Austin also pointed to research conducted by EPI that found Asian Americans on average remain unemployed longer than their white counterparts.

Fatimah Goss Graves is Vice President for Education and Employment at the National Women’s Law Center. She argues there’s no practical reasoning behind choosing applicants on the basis of current employment. “Long-term unemployment is not related to an employee’s value but rather a reflection of the state of the economy. There simply aren’t enough jobs available.”

Both Graves and Austin were part of a conference held by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which focused on the issue of unemployment discrimination in hiring specifically. The EEOC was created as part of Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act as a legal body to enforce the legislation. Christine Saah Nazer is with the communications department at EEOC. She suggested there might already exist a legal argument against hiring discrimination on the basis of employment status.

“A practice that is neutral on its face might violate Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act if it has a harmful disparate impact on legally protected groups, such as women, people with disabilities, Hispanics, etc.”

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