Unemployment fell in February to 8.9 percent, and US companies added 192,000 people to their payrolls, but one category of workers is increasingly facing an overt form of discrimination.
In the bad old days of the 1800s, when it was legal for employers to discriminate against anyone they pleased, job postings used to say things like: "No Irish Need Apply." Now the unemployed, it seems, have become the new Irish: In advertisement after advertisement, employers come right out and tell them they're not wanted.
Right now CareerBuilder, one of the biggest job sites on the web, has a posting for an entry-level engineer. The candidate, it says, will perform structural analysis of telecommunications cell towers. A civil engineering degree is required, an undergrad GPA of at least 3.4 as is knowledge of AutoCAD. Some travel is required.
Oh, and there's one other thing: "No layoff candidates."
You heard right: If you've been laid off or are out of work, pal, scram -- this employer, like many others, doesn't want you. You're damaged goods.
Look anywhere where jobs are posted, and you'll see more examples. This discrimination isn't subtle. It's not covert. It's right out in the open, stated in the listings: A phone manufacturer looking to fill a marketing job stipulates "No unemployed candidates will be considered at all." An electronics firm looking for an engineer says it will "Not consider/review anyone NOT currently employed regardless of the reason." A Craigslist posting for an assistant restaurant manager in New Jersey says all applicants "Must be currently employed."
So prevalent is this new form of discrimination that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in February held hearings on it. The EEOC press release announcing them bore the catchy title "Out of Work? Out of Luck."
Testifiers included Christine Owens, executive director of the National Employment Law Project, a national nonprofit group that advocates on behalf of low-age and unemployed workers, and persons facing unfair or unlawful barriers to employment.
Owens says it's hard to know how widespread discrimination against the jobless has become, but she has seen human resource professionals widely quoted to the effect that turning away the unemployed is a growing trend.
As for the help wanted notices, "What you see stated in the advertisements is just the tip of the iceberg," Ownes says. "For every ad that's explicit, many more have the same policy but don't say so. We think it's widely happening and that it's grounds for concern, especially in an economy where job growth is so slow and so many qualified people are looking for work. It imposes an artificial and arbitrary barrier that job seekers shouldn't have to deal with."
She cited in her EEOC testimony the case of a Texas job seeker, an experienced pharmaceutical sales rep, who received from an executive recruiter an e-mail stating one express caveat: "Candidates must be currently employed or must have left the industry within the last six months."
In the 2½ years that Kelly Wiedemer, 45, has been out of work, she's received this kind of brush-off more than once.
Wiedemer, a former operations analyst, got a call last summer from a local technical college that was looking for an analyst. When she went in for her interview, the man who questioned her asked her about her experience and previous work. "He asked about my background, and I explained that I was an operations analyst." She felt she was doing a good job of selling herself. They talked for about five minutes.
"Then he asked me how long I'd been out of work," she says. "I told him." His facial expression changed. "As soon as he heard that, it was over." He asked her "in an accusatory tone" why she had been out of work for so long. What had she been doing? "I told him I'd been taking training courses to increase my skill set. I'd also done volunteer work. He did not respond."
"It was humiliating," says Wiedemer. "It's not like I haven't been looking for a job. It's not like I decided to take a couple of years off." On her way home, she says, "I didn't know whether to scream or cry."
In November she saw an ad on Careerbuilder.com for a business analyst. It sounded ideal. Not only was it just a few miles from where Wiedemer lives, it paid the same as her old job and had almost exactly the same responsibilities. The listing said the applicant would need to know how to implement a particular kind of software package -- the same one that Wiedemer had implemented in her prevous job. "I knew that system," she says. "I knew it better than the guys we called to come fix it for us."
She fired off her resume and got a response the very next day.
The recruiter, she says, was at first excited. Then the interview turned to how long Wiedemer had been out of work. The excitement cooled. Wiedemer says the recruiter said: "Here's what I'm going to do. I'm willing to submit your resume to the hiring manager -- but I'll be honest: Your long employment gap will be a tough sell."
Wiedemer never got another interview.
"It was such a perfect fit," she says dejectedly. "A perfect opportunity. I could have brought a lot to the table for them. They didn't even want to talk to me. It's like all my skill sets had no value to these people."
It's one thing, she says, "to get kicked to the curb." It's another to think, "I might never work in my old capacity again, at any rate of pay. The possibilities are slim for anybody who's been out of work as long as I have."
Owens says that while discrimination against the unemployed may be cruel and may be outrageous, it's not clear that it's illegal. That's one reason the EEOC held hearings -- to get opinions on that question.
Were the EEOC to decide to prohibit the practice, says Owens, there are two ways the commission could go about it. They could determine that such discrimination is itself illegal, or they could find that although legal it works a disproportionate hardship on certain categories of job seekers already protected by law, such as the elderly, the disabled, women and members of various ethnic minorities.
To the extent, says Owens, that an employer says the applicant must be recently employed or out of work no longer than six months, the stipulation disproportionately affects older workers, who tend to go unemployed for longer periods than the young. And the EEOC, she says, enforces laws against age discrimination.