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Dec. 4, 2020

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Should there be a law protecting the unemployed?

States' legislation aimed at preventing discrimination against jobless often fails

The Columbian
Published:
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Marra Johnson, employment specialist at WorkSource Vancouver, leads a workshop designed to assist unemployed workers on analyzing their skills and abilities.
Marra Johnson, employment specialist at WorkSource Vancouver, leads a workshop designed to assist unemployed workers on analyzing their skills and abilities. Photo Gallery

The Washington Legislature has not taken up the issue of discrimination against the long-term unemployed in the job search and recruitment process.

State long-term jobless: Statewide, the Employment Security Department notes that there are 64,500 long-term unemployed workers, representing 30 percent of all unemployed workers. That number is based on a 12-month average ending July 2014.

The state does not report long-term unemployed by county. But between January 2010 and July 2014, there were 10,322 Clark County workers who had exhausted all unemployment benefits, according to the Employment Security Department. As of the end of July, 7,166 recipients of unemployment benefits in Clark County had exhausted all benefits and still had no employment in Washington, Employment Security reported. Of those, 37 percent were older than 55.

Assistance programs: Since May, the Southwest Washington Workforce Development Council has received two grants to help the long-term unemployed. Programs using that grant funding are about to be launched.

One grant of $325,000 is Southwest Washington’s share of a federal “rapid response” grant that will be used to provide training and other services to at least 75 people who have been unemployed for 27 weeks or more. Workers will receive training to work in a number of industries including manufacturing, high-tech, or information technology, said Tim Foley, director of employment and training for the workforce council. The program will soon be ready to launch, and the funding grant expires in March 2016, Foley said.

The Washington Legislature has not taken up the issue of discrimination against the long-term unemployed in the job search and recruitment process.

State long-term jobless: Statewide, the Employment Security Department notes that there are 64,500 long-term unemployed workers, representing 30 percent of all unemployed workers. That number is based on a 12-month average ending July 2014.

The state does not report long-term unemployed by county. But between January 2010 and July 2014, there were 10,322 Clark County workers who had exhausted all unemployment benefits, according to the Employment Security Department. As of the end of July, 7,166 recipients of unemployment benefits in Clark County had exhausted all benefits and still had no employment in Washington, Employment Security reported. Of those, 37 percent were older than 55.

Assistance programs: Since May, the Southwest Washington Workforce Development Council has received two grants to help the long-term unemployed. Programs using that grant funding are about to be launched.

One grant of $325,000 is Southwest Washington's share of a federal "rapid response" grant that will be used to provide training and other services to at least 75 people who have been unemployed for 27 weeks or more. Workers will receive training to work in a number of industries including manufacturing, high-tech, or information technology, said Tim Foley, director of employment and training for the workforce council. The program will soon be ready to launch, and the funding grant expires in March 2016, Foley said.

The Department of Labor has provided some $500,000 to the workforce council through what is called a Job Driven National Emergency Grant. That program for long-term unemployed workers will serve a minimum of 82 people and retrain them to work in the health care field. It will be open to people who have been unemployed for 27 weeks or more since the start of the recession in December 2008.

The workforce council is part of a Portland metro area application for $8.5 million in Department of Labor funding for another program designed to prepare long-term unemployed workers for a return to employment. If the grant is awarded, Southwest Washington would receive about $1.8 million, Foley said.

People interested in learning more about the programs for serving the long-term unemployed may contact Darcy Hoffman at WorkSource Vancouver, 360-735-5038 or <a href="mailto:dhoffman@esd.wa.go">dhoffman@esd.wa.go</a>.

-- Gordon Oliver

The Department of Labor has provided some $500,000 to the workforce council through what is called a Job Driven National Emergency Grant. That program for long-term unemployed workers will serve a minimum of 82 people and retrain them to work in the health care field. It will be open to people who have been unemployed for 27 weeks or more since the start of the recession in December 2008.

The workforce council is part of a Portland metro area application for $8.5 million in Department of Labor funding for another program designed to prepare long-term unemployed workers for a return to employment. If the grant is awarded, Southwest Washington would receive about $1.8 million, Foley said.

People interested in learning more about the programs for serving the long-term unemployed may contact Darcy Hoffman at WorkSource Vancouver, 360-735-5038 or dhoffman@esd.wa.go.

— Gordon Oliver

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 résumé 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 résumés 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, Wis., 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.

But state legislation to prevent discrimination against the unemployed has often failed.

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 use hiring practices that give the jobless a fair shot.

‘A stigma’

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 résumés as the short-term unemployed just to get an interview.

“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.

‘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, Tenn. “I don’t know how you legislate against it.”

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 also difficult 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.

In Austin, 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.

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.”

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