Jobless in Wonderland

Finding a job is hard enough for the many millions of unemployed American workers. But, believe it or not, the fact that they are jobless keeps many employers from hiring them.

That's right, being jobless keeps many workers from being hired for many of the jobs that are available.

It's crazy, sure. But once they're unemployed, many workers are destined to remain unemployed. Many employers are saying, in effect, that workers who are laid off by other employers, or who can't get other employers to hire them, must automatically be considered bad workers who they don't want to hire either.

Up to now, that bizarre practice has generally affected only workers who have been jobless for more than six months, but recent studies show it will soon affect a majority of all the unemployed. That would be particularly rough on women and minorities, whose unemployment rates and length of unemployment are much greater than those of other workers.

So precisely why do employers do it? The National Employment Law Project, which has conducted a major survey of the practices, says, “the precise rationale is unknown, but with so many applicants for every job opening, screening out the unemployed is a convenient device for reducing the workload associated with the hiring process.”

Or it may be that “employers presume that workers who are currently employed are more likely to be good performers and have a stronger work ethic than those who are unemployed.” That, of course, “completely ignores the realities of the current labor market, in which millions have become unemployed through no fault of their own.”

As reprehensible and outrageously illogical as the practice of denying available jobs to the unemployed is, some employers don't bother to hide their part in it. They openly say in ads seeking workers that the long-term unemployed need not apply or that the employer will only consider applicants who are currently employed.

The federal Economic Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is investigating whether to charge such employers with discrimination, which they so very obviously are practicing.

What's more, President Obama's American Jobs Act and two companion bills pending in Congress would make it illegal for companies with 15 or more employees to turn down or fail to seek jobless workers to fill vacancies solely because the workers are unemployed.

New Jersey has enacted a state law similar to the proposed federal law, and moves are underway to enact similar laws in at least three other states ­ New York, Michigan and Illinois.

The federal and state bills cover employment agencies as well as employers and prohibit want ads that disqualify applicants because they are jobless.

But what if the agencies and employers had legitimate reasons to find out why applicants lost their previous jobs? Or if they want to otherwise examine their employment history?

That would be perfectly legal. It would not be legal, however, to reject job applicants simply because they lost their last jobs. The EEOC would protect workers who complain of such blatant discrimination from retaliation.

The commission also could order employers to pay workers damages covering the pay and other compensation they lost because of the employer's violation of the law and at least part of fees workers might pay to attorneys arguing their case.

Although organized labor generally seems satisfied with Obama's American Jobs Act and its goal of creating two million new jobs, many in labor and elsewhere on the political left consider it an inadequate response to the nation's massive unemployment problem.

But this much is clear: The act would ban one of the most outrageous practices ever perpetrated on American workers. You need a job because you're unemployed? Sorry, says the boss, no job for you because you're unemployed.

Have we fallen into Alice's Wonderland?