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Labor Day Realities: When Employers Have a Hiring Bias Against the Unemployed

| August 31, 2014

They don't like my resume, Ma.

They don’t like my resume, Ma.

The day Debra Wolverton was laid off from her retail sales job in June 2013, she stopped by some businesses on her way home in Austin, Texas, to ask for work. She was told to apply online.

She did, countless times for countless job openings. She seldom got a response. Today, Wolverton, 48, is still without full-time employment. She’s convinced her resume is often rejected by computer programs that screen out jobless applicants who are older — people employers view as too expensive — or  who have been out of work a long time.


“It’s awful,” she said. “It’s all online. You don’t even get to speak to anybody.”

Some cities, states and President Barack Obama have sought to help long-term unemployed people like Wolverton, who they say shouldn’t be passed over for jobs because their resumes show an employment gap. But it hasn’t been easy.

As the nation’s jobless rate has dropped to 6.2 percent, those who’ve been out of work for months or years often feel forgotten. And many no longer look for work.

About 3.2 million people have been out of work for 27 weeks or longer, the Labor Department reported earlier this month. Called the long-term unemployed, they comprise about a third of those who are jobless.

Another 2.2 million aren’t included in those numbers. They’re only marginally looking for work and have all but disappeared from a labor market that’s been shrinking since the Great Recession.

New York City and Madison, Wisconsin last year banned employers from discriminating against job applicants who are unemployed. Violators could face fines or possible lawsuits. The District of Columbia enacted a similar law in 2012. The same year, Oregon banned help-wanted advertising that said only those with a job need apply. So did Chicago.

Some states have stepped up efforts to get the unemployed back to work quickly by offering one-on-one or group counseling and training to help people with the actual mechanics of the modern day job search. But state legislation to prevent discrimination against the unemployed has often failed.


Several state have made it unlawful to discriminate against the long-term unemployed, but not Florida.


Earlier this month, Republican Gov. Chris Christie vetoed a bill that would have made New Jersey the first state to ban discrimination against the jobless, although in 2011 the state outlawed advertising that said only the employed need apply.

The California legislature last week passed a bill that would make it illegal for employers to discriminate against unemployed people in advertising and in hiring. But two years ago, Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed a less stringent bill that would have banned only discriminatory advertising.

Obama failed to get federal legislation passed in 2011. So in January, he ordered federal agencies not to discriminate against the long-term unemployed. He also signed up 300 major companies, ranging from Apple to McDonald’s to Wal-Mart, to pledge to hiring practices that give the jobless a fair shot.

“Folks who’ve been unemployed the longest often have the toughest time getting back to work,” Obama said in unveiling the companies’ pledge. “It’s a cruel Catch-22: The longer you’re unemployed, the more unemployable you may seem.”

‘A Stigma’

A White House report out last month on the nation’s shrinking labor participation rate said gloomy job prospects likely have driven some older workers into retirement. It also pointed to research that indicates the longer people are unemployed, the lower their odds of finding work. A big factor is that employers discriminate against job applicants with big gaps of employment on their resumes.

In a 2012 study, three researchers from UCLA and one from the State University of New York at Stony Brook found a hiring bias exists against applicants as soon as they’re unemployed and only gets worse the longer they are out of work.

Another, conducted last year by Northeastern University researcher Rand Ghayad, found the bias was more severe the longer an applicant was jobless. He found the long-term unemployed had to send out 3.5 times as many resumes as the short-term unemployed just to get an interview.

stateline logo analysis“It’s a stigma,” said Ian Calderon, a Democrat who sponsored the Assembly legislation in California. “If you’re unemployed, there’s an attitude they feel they face (from employers) of ‘If nobody else wants you, why should I want you?’”

Calderon’s bill would bar employers and recruiting firms from advertising only for employed people and prohibit employers from rejecting for consideration a qualified candidate just for an employment gap. Violations could carry fines from $1,000 to $10,000.

“It’s not like we’re trying to tell business who they can hire,” Calderon said. “We’re just trying to get their feet through the door.  

“I think it’s the business of government to see that everyone plays by the rules and everyone has an opportunity,” he said.

‘A Pernicious Practice’

Anti-bias bills to help the unemployed have been introduced in 24 states and D.C. since the start of 2011, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. But few got very far.

Foes argue that while the discrimination is wrong and employers hurt only themselves if they do it, the laws would be hard to enforce and add to the legal woes of employers who often get hundreds of applications for a few openings in today’s tight job market.

“Do I think employers should discriminate against the unemployed? Absolutely not,” said Dan Ryan, who runs an executive search and talent development firm in Nashville, Tennessee. “I don’t know how you legislate against it.”

Laws will only clog the courts with complaints that will be hard to prove, he said. The problem is so many people are looking for work when jobs are still hard to come by. “No piece of legislation will solve that,” he said.

The issue has faded, too, as employers are less blatant in their advertising, said Mitchell Hirsch, who advocates for the unemployed with the National Employment Law Project.

“While it’s not as visible as it once was, it’s still a pernicious and pervasive practice,” he said.

Employers or the recruiting firms that companies hire to screen applicants depend largely on online job applications, he said. They can write computer programs that screen out people with employment gaps.

“It’s very difficult to change these kinds of behaviors,” Hirsch said. “We would hope that there is less of this happening as the labor market improves.”

It’s also very hard to prove the discrimination with so many out of work, even the staunchest advocates for the unemployed say.

“How do you tell if someone is discriminating? Even if it’s systemic, I’m not sure there’s a way to figure that out,” said Katherine McFate, president of the Center for Effective Government.

She said efforts instead should go to extending unemployment benefits to help the long-term unemployed survive until the economy creates more jobs.

The legislation may be more of a gesture to the plight of the unemployed than a solution to a problem. The D.C. Office of Human Rights, for instance, has received no complaints of jobless discrimination since the District’s law passed in 2012.

Democratic state Sen. Jim Whelan, sponsor of the New Jersey legislation, said he hadn’t gotten any complaints from his Atlantic City constituents, but introduced the bill because discriminating against the unemployed “doesn’t seem right.”

He also has a big unemployment problem in his district that will only worsen as four casinos soon will be shuttered, eliminating even more jobs.

Avoiding Online Applications

Ryan, the recruiter, worked with the Society for Human Resource Management, the world’s largest group of HR professionals, to help craft hiring guidelines so the long-term unemployed aren’t bypassed. They were incorporated into the practices the companies agreed to follow in January at the White House.

Ryan advises the unemployed to put their efforts into improving their jobs skills and circumventing online applications by networking with people who can help them get an interview.

In Austin, Debra Wolverton decided to try something else after losing her retail sales position. With financial help from her family, she is pursuing a real estate license.

“I just couldn’t sit here and do the same thing all over again and again,” she said of sending out job applications. “I applied for everything. I couldn’t find anything. I decided I had to go into business for myself.”

Until she gets her license and can start making money selling houses, she’ll continue looking for any kind of work because extended unemployment benefits are gone.

“I’ve done everything,” she said. “I’ve painted people’s rooms. I’ve done lawn work. I’ll do anything.”

–Jeffrey Stinson, Stateline

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13 Responses for “Labor Day Realities: When Employers Have a Hiring Bias Against the Unemployed”

  1. Henry says:

    This is why there are 110 million on WELFARE. And its going to get much worse very soon. There are NO JOBS in America. 30 years ago began the downfall of the American worker when the government allowed businesses to move over seas to save on taxes and hire cheaper labor. We have NO FACTORIES or INDUSTRIAL companies like we did back then which employed thousands. Now there is NOTHING but part-time service work and the illegals get those jobs. Either get into the Medical Profession or Information Technology or your NOT going to get a full time job !

    • NortonSmitty says:

      Henry, I agree with most of what you say. But the fact is the social safety net of Welfare was gutted by President BJ Clinton to eliminate everyone except for AWC, or Aid for (Very,Very poor) Women with Children. Although in America today this should cover 100 million poor struggling unemployed people of all races, the fact is in 2013 only 12.8 million, or 3.8% of all Americans get this assistance. We send more to Israel every year than we spend on our own hungry kids. And that’s a fact.

  2. rooster says:

    its very true! the SAME jobs pop up online every day! and they NEVER give a location,or schedule of what they are hiring for. Its always asking for resume so they have your numbers,history etc BUT never call or email back to even acknowledge your answer

  3. Sherry Epley says:

    Right on Henry! What has happened to the LOYALTY to the workers of the USA????

    Globalization of the work force on a planetary scale to maximize profits by using only the very cheapest labor. . . regardless of what country they live in. . . has destroyed the livelihood of millions of our citizens, along with the career prospects of our future generations. Contributing factors include throwing “employee rights” out the window with union busting, dismantling of human resource departments, weakening the department of labor. . . and legislation such as “at will employment” which means:

    Wikipedia: At-will employment is a term used in U.S. labor law for contractual relationships in which an employee can be dismissed by an employer for any reason (that is, without having to establish “just cause” for termination), and without warning.[1] When an employee is acknowledged as being hired “at will”, courts deny the employee any claim for loss resulting from the dismissal. The rule is justified by its proponents on the basis that an employee may be similarly entitled to leave his or her job without reason or warning.[2] In contrast, the practice is seen as unjust by those who view the employment relationship as characterized by inequality of bargaining power.

    GREED of the 1% is killing our country!

  4. Groot says:

    Hank Fonda! One of my favorite movies of all time! 1940. Anyway, glad I’m retired and not looking for a job around here because there are none. No need to worry about employers discriminating against the long term unemployed unless the long term unemployed is willing to commute. All you have to do folks is tell a potential employer up in St Johns or Duval counties, I’m from Palm Coast and they’ll say okay you poor so and so, that explains it.

    • NortonSmitty says:

      Just when was the last movie you saw out of Hollywood that treated the working poor with any sort of dignity like John Fords direction and John Steinbecks novel? Or on TV? Everybody’s richer than you on everything you see. Rosanne Barr’s show was the last show I remember, and she had to treat being poor as hilariously “funny” to even get it made. We are consistently being programmed to relate to our “Betters” rather than empathy to ourselves or our neighbors, our peers. Because in America today, we are all well off. And if not, we are at least happy with our lot and laughing through life.
      I do not believe this is a coincidence.

  5. Seminole Pride says:

    Most companies like to hire from within, and encourage employees to continue there education and training. There were many jobs available in our corporation, and my company encouraged me to get my M.B.A. and CPA and apply for these positions, and they would pay for it.. Why ? Because it was a lot less to promote from within and train and educate what they already have. To go through recruiting, training, visiting college campus, and orientation is very expensive for corporations. To take employees they have and mold them to fit in the company conception and there goals is more production and output of product.

    • NortonSmitty says:

      If you think this is the norm in 2014, it is not. You should be thankful every day for what your company does for you, because it is not the norm. And if your company wants to stay competitive in the future, this will not continue for too long.

  6. Jim R. says:

    NAFTA started the offshoring of whole industries and decent paying jobs for Americans, and our elected officials are promoting the TPP trade deal as beneficial to American workers when it is even worse than NAFTA. The TPP was negotiated with the input of 600 corporations and not one workers organization or environmental group. Once again a trade agreement that will shaft the American worker will soon come up for a vote, and the media will be 24 hours of non-stop lies and propaganda promoting it, just as they are right at this moment spreading irrational fear to get us into another mid east war.

  7. Brian Riehle says:

    Anyone remember what Ross Perot said about NAFTA when he was running for President in the mid 1990’s…? “That sucking sound you will hear are the American jobs being pulled down to Mexico”. (and to other places)

  8. Liana G says:

    The fact that employers can afford to be so discriminating is proof that there are more workers than jobs. Getting a degree to improve your prospects is just another money making scheme. A BA degree in education gets you a $9 – $11 an hour job in NYC as an assistant teacher/teacher assistant. Throw in the 5+ teacher certifications – costing almost $1,000 – with a master’s and your prospects may improve, when an opening becomes available, hopefully. Meantime, you’re still making $9 – $11 while waiting for that opening. A retail clerk makes $8.00 an hour – no degree/s needed, no certifications needed and no experience needed.

    A college degree is the biggest money making scam! As the 80% of 2014 graduates without jobs can attest to. But helpful if you can secure a job overseas and join the ranks of the estimated 6.32 millions of Americans living and working overseas. Followed by the next step of renouncing their citizenship, which is the next favored move. And who can blame them. Uncle Sam is going after middle class citizens to pay taxes while the big corporations don’t have to pay any AND actually get tax subsidies and other funding. For what, exactly? Microsoft is in the process of laying off 6,000 workers.How is this corporation a job creator when it is axing jobs? And why is it being rewarded for doing so? And with the very taxpayer dollars from its workers. In other words, Americans taxpayers are rewarding/paying corporations to eliminate their jobs? WTF!!!!!

    —–

    http://online.wsj.com/articles/more-expatriate-americans-break-up-with-uncle-sam-to-escape-tax-rules-1402972439

    Expatriate Americans Break Up With Uncle Sam to Escape Tax Rules
    Record Numbers Living Abroad Renounce U.S. Citizenship over IRS Reporting Requirements

  9. Jim says:

    I work for a Teapublican and he loves to outsource almost every aspect of his business to his manufacturing facilities in China or Mexico and he’s very transparent about it and he says and I quote “it’s the American way”.

  10. Sherry Epley says:

    Jim’s “first person” account of the current attitude of most of the employers in the USA speaks volumes!

    When profit comes before people, nations FAIL! We are all experiencing the down side of capitalism! GREED!

    Yet too many voters still vote AGAINST their own best interest, and trust in begging for the “trickle down”. . . pennies for the poor. When will we wake up and realize that we are being duped and manipulated by the 1%, like the Koch Brothers and Rupert Murdoch (owner of FOX and several other media outlets), at every turn?! Not only is this happening through our propaganda filled 24/7 “news” talking heads with their political agendas, but also with massive contributions to PAC groups and lobbyist in Washington and all state legislatures.

    We should rise up, do our own research and search for actual unvarnished facts and truth, and get out the vote for honest people who will at least try and represent their constituents without being “bought”, or manipulated by those that have absolutely no regard for the workers of the USA.

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