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Business Money

Md. legislation targets employer bias against unemployed

Many long-term unemployed have discovered an ugly truth: You need a job to get one.

Jobless workers across the country have recounted tales of being written off by a prospective employer if they have been out of work for six months or more. And some job ads have explicitly stated that a candidate must be currently employed.

Now Maryland has joined a growing number of states considering legislation to prevent employers from discriminating against the unemployed.

"It's about changing minds or changing attitudes, and then changing behaviors of the employers and the people who represent the employers," says Jackie Gray, a Baltimore resident who co-founded an advocacy group, Unemployed Rising, and supports the legislation.

Maryland employment experts acknowledge some bias in the state against the long-term unemployed. But they add that most employers want only to hire the best candidates, regardless of how long they have been out of work. They say legislation isn't needed.

But some workers are automatically being shut out just because they happened to lose their positions in one of the worst job markets in decades. This has serious financial repercussions for workers and, as a result, for businesses and the state's economy. It is in Maryland's best interest to extend protections to jobless workers.

Just how many people have their unemployment status held against them isn't known. The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission says jobless workers aren't a protected class, so the agency doesn't track such complaints.

The number affected is potentially high. According to the latest figures, 5.4 million workers nationwide, or nearly 43 percent of all unemployed, have been without a job for more than six months.

"It's difficult to document," says Maurice Emsellem, policy co-director with the National Employment Law Project. "No one wants to cop to the fact that they are doing it."

But the worker advocacy group cast light on the practice last year with a study that found more than 150 online ads — some from Maryland employers — required a candidate to be currently working or only recently unemployed. Indeed.com, a major job site whose postings were part of the study, later announced it would no longer carry such ads.

"It's not just a problem with ads. The ads are surface-level," Emsellem says. "This kind of discrimination permeates all levels of the hiring process. … It's really important that the legislation get at those levels of discrimination as well."

Efforts to address the problem on a federal level have dragged on in the gridlocked Congress, Emsellem says.

But states are pushing ahead, with more than a dozen introducing legislation.

Last year, New Jersey banned employers from discriminating against the unemployed in advertisements. A similar bill now awaits the signature of Oregon's governor.

And to our south, Washington's city council passed legislation this month that would make it illegal for an employer or employment agency to refuse to consider or hire applicants because they're out of work. It also would ban ads that say being unemployed disqualifies a candidate for a job.

Jobless workers across the District of Columbia — in communities with high and low unemployment — complained that they couldn't even get an interview if they had been out of work for six months or more, says Council Chairman Kwame Brown, who sponsored the legislation.

In some cases, laid-off workers lived on severance packages while spending months looking for the right job, he says. Before they knew it, six months had passed, and they suddenly couldn't land an interview.

"You heard it enough out in the community," Brown says.

Maryland's legislation, introduced by Sen. Lisa Gladden of Baltimore, would add "employment status" to the list of criteria — such as race, age and religion — that employers cannot use to discriminate against workers. A hearing on the bill is scheduled for Tuesday.

The Maryland Chamber of Commerce opposes the bill and did not respond to requests for comment.

But in a summary of the chamber's position on its website last week, the group said: "Employment status is not a factor in the hiring process; however, job skills are a legitimate factor to evaluate a candidate for employment."

It added that Maryland's Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation's research found this wasn't an issue in the state.

However, Shannon Davis, a spokeswoman for the state agency, says the chamber implied that a formal study had been done, which is not the case. The agency asked the chamber to remove the statement from its website.

Davis adds that this type of employment discrimination does occur in Maryland, but that the agency doesn't know to what extent. "We are keeping an eye on it," she says.

Unemployed workers say they feel the bias.

Gray launched Unemployed Rising about a year ago with a handful of other jobless professionals. The 50-year-old says she lost her job with a Washington museum more than three years ago after a grant wasn't renewed. Gray, who supports herself through freelance writing and antiques appraisals, says companies reject resumes from the unemployed right off the bat.

"There are a lot of people unemployed right now," she says. "And people screening the resumes are trying to cut down on the resumes they screen. It's not fair."

Kevin Purcell, another founder of Unemployed Rising, recently moved from Washington to Maryland to take a job as an ergonomics engineer. Before that, he had been out of work for nearly three years. The 52-year-old recalls seeing ads for "currently employed" workers only.

One company he interviewed with told him that it had numerous openings and asked if he could recommend other potential employees. He says he suggested a less-experienced friend who was already working — and she got hired; he didn't.

Ed Wallach, president of Ed Wallach Search Group in Bethesda, says he recruits for the defense and intelligence industry, which still has plenty of jobs. Given that, Wallach says, "If you haven't been [employed] for many, many months, as a recruiter I'm leery of what's wrong."

He adds that such applicants still will be reviewed to see if there are extenuating circumstances to explain the lengthy unemployment, such as a family illness.

"There is a bias," says Tom Graff, president of Hanover Consulting Group, a Hunt Valley recruiter. "There is just a thought that there is something wrong with the candidate. Quite often that's not the case. They were in the wrong place at the wrong time."

Still, Graff says, Maryland doesn't need the proposed legislation.

"The legislature's time would be better served if they would go look at ways and programs to teach people who are unemployed to get employed," he says.

Howard Kurman, a Baltimore employment lawyer representing businesses, also says the legislation is unnecessary and doubts it will pass.

"Employers acting out of self-interest should, and in most cases do, pick the best candidate they can get," he says. "And the best candidate may be someone out of the job market for a while."

But Brown, the Washington council chairman, says he heard similar arguments when the city considered its legislation. He says there is a "disconnect" between what employers and staffing agencies say and what is actually happening.

"And I'm a pro-business guy," he says.

eileen.ambrose@baltsun.com

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