Hiring Bias Rears Its Head For U.S. Long-Unemployed

As high unemployment persists more than four years after the start of the Great Recession, many in the U.S. who have struggled for years without work say they face discrimination.
by | March 23, 2012

HARTFORD, Connecticut — As high unemployment persists more than four years after the start of the Great Recession, many in the U.S. who have struggled for years without work say they face discrimination.

As of January, California, Connecticut, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Dakota and Tennessee were considering legislation to prohibit employers from discriminating against the unemployed in help-wanted ads, in direct hiring or in screenings by employment agencies, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Nearly 13 million Americans, or 8.3 percent, were unemployed in February, the U.S. Department of Labor says.

Terri Michaels, who manages an employment firm, criticized hiring practices that screen out unemployed job seekers. Some large employers have an unspoken policy against hiring applicants who've been out of work for two years or more because they want workers with a stable job history and recent references, she said.

Michaels said employers may use unemployment to weed out applicants for no other reason than to cut down a huge number of resumes.

"When you have 14 million unemployed, everyone is applying for everything," she said. "You have to be somewhat discriminating."

A New Jersey lawmaker who co-sponsored the nation's only law barring ads that restrict applicants to those already with a job said she backed the legislation after colleagues showed her ads specifying that the unemployed should not bother applying.

"I found that absolutely reprehensible," Assemblywoman Celeste M. Riley said. "When you apply for a job, you should be viewed based on your skill level, not whether you have a job or not."

The National Employment Law Project, based in New York, wants laws that explicitly prohibit employers and employment agencies from eliminating from consideration candidates who are unemployed.

"You want to tell employers they can't screen workers out of the process because they're unemployed," said George Wentworth, a lawyer for the group.

Some personnel managers say hiring decisions are based on a host of subjective reasons that defy remedies imposed by laws.

"There's much more subliminal discrimination against the unemployed that's hard to document," said Lynne Sarikas, director of the MBA Career Center at Northeastern University's College of Business Administration. "Hiring is an art, not a science. You rely on a gut reaction."

For example, employers may suspect that an applicant is seeking an available job for the wrong reasons, she said.

Also, some long-term unemployed applicants may come across as too urgent for work, "and desperation doesn't translate well in an interview," she said.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.

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