Unemployed? Employers are Discriminating Against You

While the epic battle over the Emergency Unemployment Compensation Extension Act rages in the U.S. Senate, our elected representatives ought to consider that the “long-term unemployed” are a product of discrimination on the part of employers.

Discrimination?  Say what?

You heard right.

Let’s assume that just as soon as you get over the shock of being laid off, you begin looking for another job in earnest.  Does your chance of getting hired increase or decrease once you are out of work?

Looking at this question from the point of view of the employer, there are at least two schools of thought on whether or not it is a good idea to hire the unemployed.

  • Hire the unemployed! 
    • The unemployed face all kinds of financial pressure and are eager to work to avoid losing their families and ending up out on the street.
    • The unemployed aren’t in a position to be picky and are willing to perform difficult, onerous, repetitive or dirty jobs at which others would turn up their noses.
    • The unemployed are willing to work on the cheap.  After all, something is better than nothing, particularly when you can no longer put food on the table.
    • The unemployed are available immediately — no two week notice and all that!
  • Heavens no, don’t hire the unemployed! (Also known as “to get a job, you gotta have a job.”)
    • Don’t even bother.  The unemployed are so desperate, they apply for jobs for which they are overqualified or underqualified.  What a waste of time!
    • The unemployed are just looking for a stopgap job.  They’ll just leave as soon as they find something better.  Instead, hire someone who already has a job.  If an applicant is willing to leave his or her job to come work for us, you know this person is serious!
    • The unemployed are “scarred.”  These broken, dispirited people have been beaten down to the point where they have lost the will to succeed at any job.  During their time out of work, their skills have atrophied, they’ve missed out on technical updates and the only thing they’re good at anymore is sitting on their asses in front of the TV.
    • The unemployed tend to have health and family problems that will only end up costing the company money.

So, who’s right?

Word is that some employers have an informal policy of turning down the applications of anyone who is out of work.  And there are some employers who make no bones about it:  They have the guts to include a caveat in their employment ads that the unemployed need not apply.

If this sounds a lot like discrimination, that’s because it is.  And it’s perfectly legal.

This is what I call the “purple” type of discrimination.  If an employer loathes the color purple, he or she violates no law by kicking out any applicant who walks in wearing purple.  In other words, unemployment (like wearing purple garments) is not a “protected class” (like race, gender and disability, for example) under federal law, giving employers the right to discriminate to their heart’s content without legal consequence.

In 2012, the legislature in my home state of California voted in favor of a bill that would make discrimination against the unemployed illegal.  However, the measure failed to become law when Governor Jerry Brown vetoed it.

The bottom line is that the unemployed tend to be looked at with suspicion by potential employers.

Not too long ago, when I found myself in a company’s lovely conference room to be interviewed by a panel of managers, I decided to relax and “just be myself.”  After all, I knew that I had excellent qualifications for the job.  So I explained to the panel how I became laid off when my previous employer had to resort to a reduction in force due to severe financial difficulties.  There were three rounds of layoffs, during which I lost most of the employees who I managed before losing my own job in the last of the rounds.

I wasn’t hired.

After all, who knows why an applicant really became unemployed?  Sure, they’ll tell you a good story, but who knows whether they’re telling you the truth?  Could be that the employee engaged in unethical practices, robbed the company blind, committed sexual harassment or was caught sleeping on the job.  You can reference check from here to Timbuktu, but no former employer will ever admit to any of these things for fear of being sued.

With this attitude on the part of employers, the unemployed, who already ended up on the losing end of the stick once, are guaranteed to be the losers again and again.

And our senators wonder why millions of Americans can’t find a job during their initial 26-week period of state benefits?

We must at least consider that employers may be the ones responsible for causing laid off workers to become the “long termers” that Senate Republicans find so repugnant.


Cohen, Adam, “Jobless Discrimination?  When Firms Won’t Even Consider Hiring Anyone Unemployed,” Time (May 23, 2011).  http://content.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,2073520,00.html

Gordon, Clare, “Employer Explains Why He Won’t Hire the Unemployed,” AOL Jobs (Oct. 12, 2012).  http://jobs.aol.com/articles/2012/10/12/employer-explains-why-he-wont-hire-the-unemployed/

Lemieux, Scott, “We Don’t Hire the Unemployed,” Lawyers, Guns & Money Blog (Nov. 18, 2012). http://www.lawyersgunsmoneyblog.com/2013/11/we-don%E2%80%99t-hire-the-unemployed

Lucas, Suzanne, “Unemployed?  5 Reasons Companies Won’t Hire You,” CBS Money (July 27, 2011). http://www.cbsnews.com/news/unemployed-5-reasons-companies-wont-hire-you/

Rampell, Catherine, “The Help-Wanted Sign Comes with a Frustrating Asterisk,” New York Times (Business Day, July 25, 2011).  http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/26/business/help-wanted-ads-exclude-the-long-term-jobless.html?_r=0

Smooke, David, “10 Reasons to Hire the Unemployed,” Smart Recruiters Blog. http://www.smartrecruiters.com/blog/10-reasons-to-hire-the-unemployed/



7 thoughts on “Unemployed? Employers are Discriminating Against You

  1. Hello:
    Good article – just a note, the “Lawyers, Guns & Money” article is actually dated in 2013 and links over to a NYT article from Nov. 2013. I think that’s significant because most of the articles are a few years old and this just highlights that this practice is still ongoing.

    I think this highlights that unemployment figures so often do not take in account the people who have “given up” looking for work – and usually that group is in our age range (I’m 56 and expect you are near enough to that age) and up to 65, or ready for social security. The other way you can tell this is the number of disability claims that have soared. If you infer from the disability claims number and extrapolate the give up number, our true unemployment rate is what, in the 20% or so rate? And in certain other groups, even higher still.

    I wish I knew of a clever way around this and the only things I come up with are:

    1. Many of the articles mention volunteering in a field you are interested in, or that connects to in some way, your normal field of employment. I wonder, since you’ve been a manager, if you have considered SCORE or another volunteer organization that might be able to utilize your skills? Or even the Red Cross who needs people who have logistics experience? Some of this may be unavailable to you based on your geography or for other reasons.

    I get why this makes sense – if you can volunteer, even part-time while still looking for a job – you can put this on your resume AND prove you are not getting rusty in terms of skills.

    2. The other big thing mentioned is opting out of employment altogether and going the self-employment route. Whether as a contractor or consultant with one or more clients, or offering services to the general public, this is a viable option for some.

    In one of my former lives, I worked as a paralegal for 25 years – 5 of those years for the largest employment law firm in the country. I worked on many discrimination and harassment cases (we primarily defended companies) and my rule was – 85-90% of the cases were bogus and our client should normally win (except you can never tell with juries – they can be wackos), but the rest were ones we should try to settle as fast as possible. Of course it was a few years ago and I can honestly say we never had an unemployment discrimination case but just like fat/size discrimination, it’s perfectly legal and we never had one of those cases, either.

    Which is why I don’t think this type of discrimination can be outlawed – like being fat, it is considered a state that one can change (potentially of course). It is different than being black, or 45+, or disabled or a woman, which are protected classes because these are things that cannot be changed about yourself. And woe be to the person who is a 55-year-old black, disabled woman!

    Plus let’s face it – employers will just figure out other ways to discriminate. As one of your articles cited mentioned – employers use proxies in determining who goes to the next round of recruitment. They’ll just use another one. Credit check anyone?

    The bottom line is unemployment is more structural than cyclical – but then . . . you already knew that.

    • Thanks so much for your detailed and insightful comments, Laura. You are certainly correct about the volunteering and self-employment options. (I myself am now doing short-term contract work in the tech industry.)

      I really do need a separate post or two regarding those who have given up looking for work, a phenomenon you quite elegantly described.

      As far as unemployment falling into a class of characteristics that can be changed, it’s a slippery slope. Discrimination based on unemployment is legal because it can be changed, but as long as such discrimination is legal, people will be unable to change it. When Gov. Brown vetoed the bill to outlaw unemployment discrimination in California, the reason he cited is that it is too difficult to identify and enforce. Nevertheless, a similar bill did successfully pass into law in New York City. I certainly see the enforcement difficulties involved, but it is heartening that NYC decided to be proactive and forward-thinking. I don’t see other jurisdictions in a hurry to follow suit, however. 🙂

      I truly value your ideas and thank you very much for continuing to be a reader.

  2. Hello:
    I have given some more thought to what you are writing about unemployment discrimination. Also (just as a side note) I am writing this on the road. We just got into Austin, Texas after having traveled in the past few days through northern Mississippi and Louisiana. Vicksburg, in particular, seems to be a dying city. A lot of this is structural unemployment compounded by a whole lot of other factors – race, class, age, educational level, etc. etc. (ad nauseum but it’s the sad truth of fly over country.)

    A LOT of people have given up and do not have the wherewithal to start their own businesses. After seeing burned out and boarded up buildings it’s sobering to realize decay is everywhere, not just in inner cities. There’s plenty of poverty out here, although probably not here in Austin which is a bastion of the young, educated, and adaptable in various tech industries.

    What do we do about it?

    I know what I did – I had gone to grad school and got licensed as a marriage family therapist. I practiced for about eight years before just recently closing my practice. It was a bit of an escape from working for law firms (yes, I’d been accepted to law school years earlier but I was a single mom at the time and frankly I’m glad I didn’t go) although right now, I actually miss the excitement of litigation (we always want what we don’t have . . . eh?). I don’t even know if I’m employable anymore in law.

    In my last law firm gig as I was in the process of finishing up my licensure requirements (my 3000 hours of internship then two sets of exams), I too worked as a contract person for about two years. Once the assignment ended (the nice way to say adios), I was on unemployment for as long as I could be on it, not as a vacation, but because there just was no law firm work and my practice was ramping up then. I was assiduous about what I made each week (it wasn’t that much), and I have no sense of shame for taking the unemployment.

    I never made a huge amount as a therapist – and I didn’t have to. I have had this luxury since I was remarried.

    And you can surmise that even with a modicum of intelligence, education to a master’s degree (an undergraduate degree in economics, master’s in clinical psychology), have even been in Jungian analysis, the truth is if I were not married today I would not be retired. Instead, I’d be working either as a social worker for the County of Los Angeles, or a paralegal at a big law firm in downtown LA, tired, resentful and angry. I hope I’d also have a small evening and weekend practice, but I’d never be able to quit the normal 40-hour workweek.

    So I am lucky. I was able to give up looking for work at some point, able to close my practice (except to former clients who need booster sessions), and now can enjoy this early retirement I find myself in.

    Like I said – I don’t know what people do who “give up” looking for work. If they have partners, or inheritances, or adult children or siblings . . . well, it might be easier of course. It certainly was for me. But for the others?

    I guess like always, human beings get creative when they have to. And I’m sure they will continue to. For example, I know there’s a growing group of nomads here in the U.S. who are scraping together enough dough to buy old RV’s, vans, converted buses, etc. and learning to live very close to the ground, sometimes moving from place to place daily. There was a decent article about the phenomenon in the LA Times (hey, some are dumping their sewage into storm drains, so naturally not everybody is in favor of this!). I find the full time RVers to be fascinating. Of course there are other modes of living that are as viable as this, maybe more so.

    You seem to be one who will make it – it just might not “look” as you imagine it.

    If you’d asked me a number of years ago what my life would be like at age 56, I could never have imagined this. It’s a good life.

    Made better with conversations like this.

    • Hi, Laura. Aron here (had to change from the Uncle Guacamole name due to technical issues).

      You bring up so many important issues that I’m really not sure where to start.

      I believe that, despite federal and state laws, much discrimination against women remains. Women typically earn less than men, have to deal with children, face a glass ceiling, etc. One of the few places that men have a disadvantage is when it comes to the economics of marriage. Men seldom improve their economic situations by marrying, and often quite the reverse. My wife was forced to work part-time for about eight years due to medical issues, and now she has been unable to work at all for the past four years or so (truthfully, this is partially due to the horribly poor economic situation in the impoverished areas of California in which we have found ourselves).

      It is true that most of the unemployed are financially unable to start their own businesses or continue their educations. Lately, some economists are suggesting that we return to direct government hiring in the manner of the WPA during FDR’s Depression administration. Others, such as economist Thomas Friedman, suggest that the government must permanently support (or retrain, where feasible) those who have been put out of work due to technological advance and changing world markets (such as the flight of industry to Latin America and Asia). As a long-term solution, Friedman believes that our education system must be revamped to provide children and teens with the technical skills required for success in the economy of the 21st century.

      I read a book in the early 1980s that I unfortunately cannot find anywhere now (nor do I recall the author’s name) titled “Not Working.” It was written in the style of Studs Terkel’s famous volume “Working,” but instead of interviewing people in different occupations, the author interviewed dozens of the unemployed. There was one chapter, as I recall, that was titled “Schemes to Get By” and surveyed some of the things that the unemployed do to keep body and soul together. I have some sources at large libraries back east (I am from New York originally), so I’ll keep looking and let you know.

      As I see it, unemployment is largely the product of making bad decisions. This can take many forms, including teen pregnancy, dropping out of high school and/or not attending college, substance abuse, etc. Many of those who are the victims of physical, emotional and sexual abuse, as well as those suffering from mental illness, have already dropped out of the bottom of the social safety net. With Congress’ denial of extended unemployment benefits, many more families that have been subject to layoff due to economic reasons are now beginning to fall through the holes in the safety net as well.

      I believe that part of the answer lies in the extended family. In my case, we have been able to keep going by moving in with my mother-in-law, who is a minister and lives at low cost in the church parsonage. Her work is unpaid, but she does receive donations from the collection plate as well as a small widow’s pension. My sister-in-law lives a couple miles away with her daughter and baby granddaughter. We all pool our resources, pitch in with child care and food prep and we get by. Meanwhile, there are many homeless in the area who come begging for food and money; we can’t provide more than a dollar or two, but we turn no one away without a meal.

      I very much agree with you that it is important to keep a dialogue going on this issue. Perhaps we can start a movement online!

  3. Wow what an article!

    i feel I can relate to this at this point, and it kind of makes me realise why I am unemployed for the last 2 months! But i won’t complain, its been great as I could finally catch up on my sleep, my writing, emotions and the news on the internet! I also took a membership at British Council library which makes me feel like i am using up my time perfectly! I am enjoying being unemployed and hopefully somebody will soon hire me, and if they don’t I shall start my own business! Yes! 🙂

    • I wish you good luck in your job search, Deb! I was laid off more than three months ago, but have found some short-term contract work. Hopefully I will find something more permanent before too long. I like your idea about starting your own business. What type of business are you thinking of? Thanks so much for your comment and for visiting A Map of California.

  4. Pingback: The Scarlet U | A Map of California

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