For long-unemployed, hiring bias rears its head

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HARTFORD, Conn. — Few job seekers who fail to get an interview know the reason, but Michelle Chesney-Offutt said a recruiter told her why she lost the chance to pitch for an information technology position.

The 54-year-old, who had been laid off from her IT job in Illinois, said the recruiter who responded to her online resume two years ago liked her qualifications and was set to schedule an interview. But he backed away, she said, when he learned she had been out of work for 13 months.

The employer he represented would not consider applicants who were unemployed for more than six months, she said.

“What they don’t consider is that these are not normal times,” said Chesney-Offutt, who was unemployed for nearly three years before landing a job.

As high unemployment persists more than four years after the start of the Great Recession — and nearly three years after it was officially declared over — many who have struggled for years without work say they face discrimination. Nearly 13 million Americans, or 8.3 percent, were unemployed in February, the U.S. Department of Labor says.

As of January, California, Connecticut Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Dakota and Tennessee were considering legislation to prohibit employers from discriminating against the unemployed in help-wanted ads or in direct hiring or in screenings by employment agencies, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Employers typically would face fines if found violating the law. The Oregon House, for example, voted last month to fine employers $1,000 if they post a job ad telling unemployed workers to not apply.

Some personnel managers say evidence of discrimination is sketchy and that hiring decisions are based on a host of subjective reasons that defy remedies imposed by laws.

“There’s much more subliminal discrimination against the unemployed that’s hard to document,” said Lynne Sarikas, director of the MBA Career Center at Northeastern University’s College of Business Administration. “Hiring is an art, not a science. You rely on a gut reaction.”

For example, employers may suspect that an unemployed applicant is seeking an available job for the wrong reasons, she said.

“A manager is going to get the vibe that they’ll take anything to get a job and if something better comes along they’re out the door,” Sarikas said.

Also, some long-term unemployed applicants may come across as too urgent for work, “and desperation doesn’t translate well in an interview,” she said.

Terri Michaels, who manages a Hartford employment firm that primarily staffs temporary employees, criticized hiring practices that screen out unemployed job seekers. Despite the policies of small staffing companies such as hers, some large employers have an unspoken policy against hiring applicants who’ve been out of work for two years or more because they want workers with a stable job history and recent references, she said.

“They won’t be able to say it but they’ll act on it,” said Michaels, manager of Stewart Staffing Solutions.

Employers generally expect job candidates — even while unemployed — to show they did some work such as volunteering or working temporary jobs, she said.

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