For long-unemployed, hiring bias rears its head

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Few job seekers who fail to get an interview know the reason, but Michelle Chesney-Offutt said a recruiter told her why she lost the chance to pitch for an information technology position.

The 54-year-old, who had been laid off from her IT job in Illinois, said the recruiter who responded to her online resume two years ago liked her qualifications and was set to schedule an interview. But he backed away, she said, when he learned she had been out of work for 13 months.

The employer he represented would not consider applicants who were unemployed for more than six months, she said.

“What they don’t consider is that these are not normal times,” said Chesney-Offutt, who was unemployed for nearly three years before landing a job.

As high unemployment persists more than four years after the start of the Great Recession — and nearly three years after it was officially declared over — many who have struggled for years without work say they face discrimination. Nearly 13 million Americans, or 8.3 percent, were unemployed in February, the U.S. Department of Labor says.

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 or in direct hiring or in screenings by employment agencies, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Employers typically would face fines if found violating the law. The Oregon House, for example, voted last month to fine employers $1,000 if they post a job ad telling unemployed workers to not apply.

Some personnel managers say evidence of discrimination is sketchy and that 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 unemployed applicant is seeking an available job for the wrong reasons, she said.

“A manager is going to get the vibe that they’ll take anything to get a job and if something better comes along they’re out the door,” Sarikas 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.

Terri Michaels, who manages a Hartford employment firm that primarily staffs temporary employees, criticized hiring practices that screen out unemployed job seekers. Despite the policies of small staffing companies such as hers, 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.

“They won’t be able to say it but they’ll act on it,” said Michaels, manager of Stewart Staffing Solutions.

Employers generally expect job candidates — even while unemployed — to show they did some work such as volunteering or working temporary jobs, she said.

“People who did not work in any capacity, didn’t do anything are not as desirable to prospective employers,” Michaels said. “One has to question, is that discriminatory? I don’t know.”

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

“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, agrees that job hunters need to show they’ve been active, even in unemployment.

“Don’t sit at home. Make yourself available to your community,” said Assemblywoman Celeste M. Riley.

Still, she said she backed the legislation after colleagues showed her employment ads specifying that the unemployed should not bother applying.

“I found that absolutely reprehensible,” 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.”

Connecticut lawmakers are proposing legislation that would ban discriminatory job ads, but may back off from a more far-reaching provision that would permit unemployed job seekers who claim discrimination to file a complaint with the state’s human rights commission or sue in court.

The largest business group in the state, the Connecticut Business & Industry Association, sees a ban on discriminatory job ads as reasonable, but lobbyist Kia Murrell said businesses will fight efforts to give workers the right to sue over claims of discrimination.

“You as the employer will be shaking in fear of a claim of unemployment discrimination,” she said.

The state’s human rights commission told lawmakers that substantiating bias in hiring would be difficult and could require its staff to be nearly doubled if just a small fraction of Connecticut’s 150,000 unemployed were to file a discrimination claim.

State Sen. Edith Prague and Rep. Bruce Zalaski, who head the legislature’s Labor and Public Employees Committee, said they may drop the provision allowing claims of discrimination.

“It’s not our intent that everyone can be sued,” Zalaski said.

The National Employment Law Project, based in New York, wants states to add laws that do more than ban discriminatory ads. Laws should explicitly prohibit employers and employment agencies from eliminating from consideration candidates who are unemployed, the advocacy group says.

“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.

Chesney-Offutt, of Sandwich, Ill., said she took a 4-hour-a-week job teaching voice lessons so she could tell prospective employers she was employed.

“They didn’t care I was unemployed,” she said. “They just wanted to know if I could teach voice lessons.”

The strategy worked and she eventually got a job in insurance customer service, taking calls from customers reporting claims. It doesn’t allow her to use her information technology skills, but she’s glad to be working.