While nearly 14 million unemployed Americans are searching for work, some employers are limiting their hiring to preferred candidates: People who already have jobs.
Recruiters and worker advocates say companies are screening out applicants who don't have a job or who haven't worked for many months.
The unfairness — at a time when nearly 45 percent of the unemployed have been out of work for more than six months — isn't lost on the jobless.
"How ridiculous is that? We are just victims of the economy," says Terry Weigel, a 57-year-old event planner from Phoenix who lost her job in October 2009. "It's not of our choosing."
It's unclear how widespread the practice is, but it is gaining notice. A recent report by a worker advocacy group highlighted employment ads that required candidates to have a job to get one. And the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which held a hearing on the issue early this year, says it is monitoring the situation.
"We think it may be another form of hiring discrimination," says Christine Nazer, an EEOC spokeswoman.
Laws prohibit employers from discriminating against someone based on factors such as gender, race, age and disability. Unemployment isn't one of them.
Maryland Democratic Rep. Elijah E. Cummings joined fellow House Democrats last month in introducing legislation that would make it illegal for employers and employment agencies to hold applicants' unemployment against them.
Some employment specialists say they haven't encountered such bias. They say legislation isn't needed.
"I have run into the opposite because now with the qualified employees in the market, businesses are really taking the time to get the best-qualified candidate," says Rosemary Woren, who counsels laid-off workers as an outplacement coordinator with the Mayor's Office of Employment Development in Baltimore.
But area recruiters and career counselors say the practice of screening out the unemployed is alive and well.
Steve Braun, a Baltimore recruiter, says some employers assume candidates who are already working must be good performers.
"In their mind," he says, "it's taking less risk."
Debbie Shalom, a career coach in Baltimore County, says some employers believe that "the longer people are out of work, the less attuned they are to the work environment and keeping up with the skill set."
Knowing companies want candidates with jobs, Shalom says, many recruiters now troll social media sites such as LinkedIn looking for employees who can be lured away from their employers.
Screening out the unemployed also is a way for employers to get through piles of resumes.
"Every position has thousands of applicants," says Ann Boland, an executive recruiter in Catonsville. "One of the ways employers whittle their numbers is to disregard anybody not currently working. It's obviously not the wisest or most prudent approach, but it's the easiest."
After hearing complaints from unemployed workers, The National Employment Law Project, a worker advocacy group, reviewed help-wanted ads on major online job sites, including CareerBuilder.com, Indeed.com and Monster.com.
The group reported last month that it had found more than 150 ads by employers and staffing agencies that required applicants to have a job or be only recently unemployed.
"It's hard to quantify the full extent of the problem, but my suspicion is what we see is the tip of the iceberg," says executive director Christine Owens. "It's not just bad for those folks, it's bad for the economy."
The National Employment Law Project singled out advertisements by some Maryland employers, including the Johns Hopkins University, in the report.
University spokesman Dennis O'Shea says the one-time listing in question involved a summer education program and the government grant funding it required a candidate to be currently employed as a science teacher.
Shea says "current employment" is not a typical application requirement at Hopkins; he says the university hired nearly 200 unemployed workers last year.
The group also cited an ad by Patrice & Associates, a Dunkirk recruiter for the restaurant industry.
Owner Patrice Rice says the demand for managers is high, and restaurants are leery of candidates who have been out of the industry for many months.
"If they haven't found a job in six months to a year, they are not hirable or not looking hard enough," she says. "Either one isn't favorable."
Manufacturing, banking, financial services and other conservative industries also ask for candidates who are currently working, says Boland, the Catonsville recruiter.
Even if workers aren't directly told their jobless status hurts them, some have gotten the message.
"The saying is: Most employers won't hire you if you're not employed," says Dorothea Jordan, who lost her full-time teaching position in Baltimore three years ago. "They somehow think you are damaged goods."
Jordan says months of rejections have dealt a blow to her self-esteem and even affected her health. But she has been taking advantage of the city-run Eastside One-Stop Career Center and expects to get a grant to go back to school soon to learn cybersecurity.
"You have to be persistent, and you can't give up," the 54-year-old says. "You have to have faith that things will work out."
On that, recruiters and employment specialists agree. Among their tips:
• Polish your resume. Maryland has 35 One-Stop Career Centers that can help you do so.
"An HR person looks at a resume for 10 seconds," says outplacement coordinator Woren. "You have to capture their attention immediately."
You might have to play up certain skills based on the positions you apply for, so you might need more than one resume, Woren says.
• Consider another field. Workers who have been in one position for years might not realize their skills can transfer to other industries, Woren says. A bank teller, she says, can have excellent customer service and computation skills needed elsewhere.
• Keep busy by consulting or volunteering. This gives you something to put on your resume and allows you to network with others. Braun suggests that if you want to work in a certain industry or company, find out where the executives volunteer and do the same.
•Big companies are more likely to exclude jobless candidates, Boland says. So apply to small businesses. Small, entrepreneurial businesses tend to be more flexible and more interested in getting candidates who can start right away, she says.
•Explain in cover letters anything in your work history that might give an employer pause, says Richard Hafets, a Baltimore labor attorney who represents employers.
Hafets says he had a job candidate with poor grades during one year of law school — something that usually would put an applicant out of the running. But he says he hired the lawyer because she explained in her application that her grades suffered after she was mugged in Baltimore.
And contact your representatives in Congress and ask them to pass legislation to protect unemployed workers. It might be just the wake-up call that some employers need to stop this unfair practice.