The Unemployment Bias: The Long-term Unemployed Face Severe Discrimination

Last year I did some work for a large company that decided it would not hire anyone who was unemployed. It would automatically reject any candidate who had been unemployed even for a day. As I’ve learned, this attitude toward candidates is pervasive — many employers seem to have concluded that the long-term jobless are damaged goods.

The National Employment Law Project reported that companies across the country often posted job notices explicitly excluding applicants who are unemployed. Researchers at the Federal Reserve have found that people who are unemployed more than six months are heavily discriminated against. They sent fake resumes to hundreds of employers in response to job postings. Applicants who had only recently lost a job but had no relevant experience were far more likely to be called than those with many years of experience who had been out of work a long time.

All the resumes were of 2005 college graduates with identical skills, differing only in their length of unemployment and experience in the industry. The long-term unemployed received few responses. In many cases the employers’ ATS eliminated applications automatically. Six months of joblessness was enough to erase the value of industry experience. Employers preferred candidates with less joblessness over those who had worked in their industry.

What Is the “Long-Term”?

When I first heard the term “long-term unemployed,” I thought it referred to people who had not worked in years. But the definition is six months or more. I can see that someone who has been out of work for years is likely to have skills that have seriously deteriorated or may have difficulty getting back into a routine of meeting deadlines, but six months? Really? What is the basis for deciding when an unemployed person is not as qualified as an employed one?

Even in a fast-changing field like IT it would be hard to make the case that skills get outdated in six months. There’s no evidence that discrimination against the unemployed is based on anything other than prejudice and ignorance. It’s not logical to assume that a job seeker with extensive experience using the general skills needed in a prospective job is less qualified than untested applicants regardless whether the experience was gained in a job that ended a week ago or a year ago.

This is one reason why we continue to see large numbers of vacancies for jobs that do not require specialized skills despite having high unemployment. But a disproportionate number of the chronically unemployed simply lack skills currently prized by employers. They also become discouraged. Research shows that the longer unemployment lasts, the less time the unemployed spend looking for work.

The District of Columbia, Oregon, and New Jersey have passed laws that make it illegal for employers to refuse to consider or hire candidates because they were out of work, and bar advertisements from suggesting that the unemployed need not apply. Similar laws are being considered in 18 other states. But it can be difficult to prove that unemployment was the reason a person was not hired — in New Jersey only one employer has been cited for violating the law in over two years.

The effects of long-term unemployment extend beyond income loss. The majority of people in this group — 55 percent — are men. They are also more likely to remain unemployed because the industries that are male dominated (manufacturing and construction) have recovered the least and where companies are investing more in automation than in increasing their labor force. Men are also more ill equipped to deal with the consequences of long periods of unemployment than women. They are more prone to turn to excessive drinking, drug abuse, domestic violence, and crime. So discrimination by employers creates problems that extend far beyond the loss of income.

There are still nearly five million Americans who have been unemployed more than 6 months. It does appear that the situation is getting better; the long-term unemployed now make up 39.1 percent of all job seekers, according to the U.S. Labor Department, the first time that figure has dropped below 40 percent in more than three years.