AP on the Long-Term Unemployed, Part 1: No Jobless Person Found Who Supports 'Protected Class' Legislation

The headline this afternoon at the Associated Press to a report by Sam Hananel attempted to create the impression that complaints by many who have been unemployed for an extended time period that many employers are reluctant to consider and sometimes even refuse to consider their employment inquiries and applications equals support for provisions in President Obama's American Jobs Act which would for all practical purposes make them another protected class.

No doubt there is some support for the (in my opinion) misguided notion, but Hananel's underlying report never quoted an actual long-term unemployed person supporting the idea. Additionally, as I will cover in Part 2, the AP reporter also failed to tell readers why the problem has reached an unprecedented post-Depression level, namely that the economy, largely due to failed public policy choices, has thus far taken three times as long to recover from its recession than it did during any other post-recession period after World War II. Here are key paragraphs from Hananel's dispatch concerning the problem:

Unemployed seek protection against job bias

After two years on the unemployment rolls, Selena Forte thought she'd found a temporary job at a delivery company that matched her qualifications.

But Forte, a 55-year-old from Cleveland, says a recruiter for an employment agency told her she would not be considered for the job because she had been out of work too long. She had lost her job driving a bus.

... Forte, scraping by now as a part time substitute school bus driver, is part of a growing number of unemployed or underemployed Americans who complain they are being screened out of job openings for the very reason they're looking for work in the first place. Some companies and job agencies prefer applicants who already have jobs, or haven't been jobless too long.

She could get help from a provision in President Barack Obama's jobs bill, which would ban companies with 15 or more employees from refusing to consider - or offer a job to - someone who is unemployed. The measure also applies to employment agencies and would prohibit want ads that disqualify applicants just because they are unemployed.

... Should the bill fail, Democrats are sure to remind jobless voters that the GOP blocked an attempt to redress discrimination against them at a time when work is so hard to find.

The effort to protect the unemployed has drawn praise from workers' rights advocates, but business groups say it will just stir up needless litigation by frustrated job applicants. The provision would give those claiming discrimination a right to sue, and violators would face fines of up to $1,000 per day, plus attorney fees and costs.

... A survey earlier this year by the National Employment Law Project found more than 150 job postings on employment Web sites such as CareerBuilder.com and Monster.com requiring that applicants "must be currently employed" or using other exclusionary language based on current employment status.

... The practice has also drawn concern from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, where members at a hearing earlier this year said barring unemployed people from employment may have a greater effect on blacks and Hispanics with higher jobless rates.

Later, Hananel reported that the temp agency, Kelly Services, "said the company does not discriminate on any basis," while a Fedex spokesperson "said her company has no policy barring the unemployed from seeking a job and never instructed the temp agency to discriminate," claiming that "There was obviously confusion on the part of the temp agency." One could argue that there was a lot of behind-covering going on, but it remains the case that Hananel used an unprovable episode as the anecdotal basis for his story, and never quoted any unemployed person (including Forte) about whether they would support the American Jobs Act provision treating the long-term unemployed as a de facto protected class.

In what turned out to be a somewhat controversial column back in March ("Unemployed Need Not Apply -- Thanks to Obamanomics"; originally run under a different title at Pajamas Media; bolds are mine in this post), I wrote that there are several quite rational reasons why businesses are inclined to hire those who are still working or have been unemployed for only a short time:

If a person is already working somewhere else, they’re demonstrating that on a daily basis, not in the recent or sometimes distant past, their work habits and output are more than likely satisfactory to someone else. There’s at least a decent chance that this person has kept his or her skills sharp, and has kept up with technological and market developments in the industry. The effort involved in training such a person in their new job will often be fairly minimal. There will also be a lower likelihood that the person will flunk a background check, credit check, or their drug test.

With the unemployed, especially the long-term unemployed, the situation completely flips. Work habits and attitudes, even if once great, become suspect. Skills may have eroded. On the job training efforts are more likely to be substantial, take longer to stick, and are more likely to fail. The chances that the new person will steal because of financial hardship, has gotten into legal trouble while unemployed, or has fallen into substance abuse are all greater.

Employers who are avoiding the unemployed are merely saying, “We only have so much time and energy to put into a job search, and we can’t afford to make a business mistake. So we’re going to avoid considering the unemployed to reduce the chances of making such a mistake.” Contrary to the belief of those who apparently feel that it’s somehow an employer’s duty to hire the unemployed, and despite the fact that bad decisions to overwork current staff or to abandon necessary tasks are often made, there is nothing wrong with this. It’s about survival.

That this is not at all comforting to the unemployed who are aggressively looking for work is undeniable. Those who are in that position through no real fault of their own have every reason to be angry that they and millions of other Americans are in the same position. But they should not be mad at employers. They should be mad as hell at their government.

Hananel at best only hinted at these realities when he referred to an employment law group spokesman's concern that, in Hananel's words, "Some companies might assume people who have been out of work for several months may not be stellar performers," and quoted a former Bush administration general counsel who observed the obvious: "People, I'm sure, are looking for shortcuts to trim the applicant pool that they're looking at ..."

The individual suggestions to the unemployed about networking, pounding the pavement and considering self-employment all obviously still apply. But on a broader level, nothing will cure the problem like a prospering economy. The American Jobs Act provisions supposedly helping the long-term unemployed will do nothing helpful, unless one thinks that creating a new trial lawyers' bonanza, driving employers' searches for workers further underground, making businesses reluctant to grow about the 15-employee threshold identified in the AP report, holding back overall hiring, and throwing up yet another barrier to sustained long-term economic growth are good things. Obviously, they aren't.

But, as Hananel cynically indicated, while it won't really help the long-term unemployed, it may buy votes.

Part 2 will look at the economic policy aspects of this issue, and how the AP's Hananel totally ignored them.

Cross-posted at BizzyBlog.com.

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