Call it a “slow recovery,” “a contraction,” or a “double-dip recession.” Really, call it whatever you want, but two things are obvious: The economy is in bad shape and unemployment is still sky-high.
The economy has grown at a much slower rate than expected throughout 2011, according to federal economists’ most recent estimates, and as a result the unemployment rate stopped falling. What little job growth there’s been has occurred mainly in low-paying sectors. Yesterday, a troubling report suggested the era of widespread layoffs may be coming back: companies cut more workers in July than they had in 16 months, according to the report by Challenger, Gray & Christmas.
Meanwhile, the millions of Americans who have gone jobless for a month or more are facing something even more insidious: Discrimination for being unemployed.
As we reported before, only 31 percent of people who have been unemployed for five weeks or more manage get new jobs (and it’s unlikely they’re the same quality of jobs they had before). That number plummets to 8.7 percent for folks who have been jobless for a year or more.
The long-term unemployed will be caught in another fight to extend unemployment benefits this December, when a congressional super committee created by the new debt law has to cut $1.5 trillion from the federal budget. But right now, employers are openly rejecting applications from people who are currently unemployed. Congressional Democrats have called that practice discrimination.
To remedy it, Connecticut Rep. Rosa DeLauro teamed up with Georgia Rep. Hank Johnson this spring to introduce the Fair Employment Opportunity Act—a bill to ban employment discrimination—and on Tuesday, Democratic Sens. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, and Sherrod Brown of Ohio introduced its counterpart in the Senate.
“Losing your job through no fault of your own should never disqualify you from finding a new job,” Gillibrand said in a statement. “This legislation would keep employers from discriminating against victims of this economic recession, and give all job seekers a fair chance at a paycheck so they can make ends meet and provide for their families.”
Mitchell Hirsch of the National Employment Law Project agrees. “If employers are just going to shut [the longterm unemployed] out of consideration at the outset, they’ll never get back to work,” he says.
NELP’s website for workers, UnemployedWorkers.org, was a catalyst for getting legislators to take the issue seriously. Hirsch says job seekers flooded the site with their stories of being turned away by employers and employment agencies because they were jobless. When the organization began digging around popular job websites like Monster.com and CareerBuilder, they found “scores and scores of ads saying ‘you must be currently employed to apply for this position.’ “
“People are rightly shocked,” Hirsch says. “This practice, as pervasive as it has clearly become, has exacerbated the crisis of long term unemployment.”
Employers and agencies—who are unsurprisingly overwhelmed with job applications for every position they open up—have claimed this policy is a way to reduce their burden; the ratio of job seekers to job openings has been greater than 4-to-1 for more than two years. Hirsch says the employers’ practice is “understandable, but wrong.” But he says their other reasoning, that people who are employed or recently laid off are better job prospects, is just nonsensical.
“People who have been out of work for three, six months, or a year or more, tend to be somewhat older workers—more mature workers—people with two or three decades of work experience,” Hirsch says. “Their skills are not eroding. They’re ready and willing and able to get back to work. It was the economy that threw them overboard.”