A line divides job-seekers.
On one side are those cast recently into unemployment; on the other, those out of work six months or longer. For the latter, the situation is bleak.
In his ongoing study on long-term unemployment, economist Rand Ghayad has found that job openings generally go to the newly jobless. Thousands of employers were sent resumes that outlined similar education and experience, except for one detail: Half the faux job-seekers had been out of work more than six months, said Ghayad, a Northeastern University professor.
The results were stark: Unqualified candidates recently laid off had a better chance of being called back by potential employers than well-qualified applicants who had been out of work longer.
Nationally, 37.3 percent of the unemployed have been searching for more than six months.
For those out of work, it becomes a vicious circle, said labor economist Thomas Smith of Emory University. People "start to become unemployable."
Paul Tate, for instance, has been looking since he lost his job as safety director for a 4,000-employee Atlantic City resort in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy in October 2012. He and his wife moved back to Georgia in January to live with family.
The Dalton man has sent out 493 applications and resumes in a year of searching.
Tate, 63, a 12-year U.S. Air Force veteran, has degrees in fire and safety engineering and emergency management, as well as years of supervisory experience. He has landed 16 interviews but no offers yet.
Sometimes, he said, a potential employer notes the long gap since his layoff. "In interviews, sometimes they ask what I've been doing since. I tell them I've been trying to find work."
For laid-off workers still out of work when their state benefits run out, the federal government has been providing a series of extensions — up to 47 weeks for some. An estimated 1.3 million workers were receiving benefits as of Dec. 28, when the benefits were to expire. Congress is working to grant an extension.
Across the nation, more than 4 million job-seekers have been out of work more than six months.
Long-term unemployment was a problem after the 2001 recession, but was mild compared to the current situation. Four years after the latest recession officially ended, the economy now still has fewer jobs than in 2007. And nothing similar happened after previous downturns, Smith said.
"Look at the early 1980s. That was a very deep recession, but when it was over, people were re-employed pretty quickly.
"Now, company representatives look at the time since a job-seeker's last job and wonder, 'Why hasn't someone else hired this person?' For jobs that require specialized skills, an employer thinks, 'Maybe this person doesn't have the chops anymore,' " Smith said. "They are using that metric to identify levels of quality in a worker's performance."
As months without paychecks mount, so do financial problems for many families. The long-term jobless also have higher rates of heart attacks, alcoholism and suicides, said economist Jeff Wenger of the University of Georgia.
While it is impossible to know for sure, the study offers evidence that companies are screening out long-term jobless before even looking at qualifications or experience, Wenger said. "They are picky, and they can afford to be picky."
But some experts disagree that companies use the length of joblessness as a hiring screen.
"To think that employers would pass on somebody just because they are unemployed is wrong," said Kurt Ronn, president and founder of HRworks, whose company recruits, vets and interviews potential employees for large companies. "I would argue that they are much, much better than in the past at handling candidates fairly."
But if there is a "red flag" reason to doubt the applicant, the onus is on the candidate, he said. "The recruiter has a responsibility to explore gaps in a resume. Any gap needs to be explained."
And even Ronn said that the odds are stacked against a jobless applicant, "There is no question that being unemployed makes it much, much harder," he said. "If you are doing a job for a competitor across town right now, that may be a pretty easy hiring decision."
The Society for Human Resource Management, composed of human resource professionals, believes that many companies are not being fair to applicants who have been out of work a long time.
"Maybe we shouldn't consider that a red flag anymore," said Nancy Hammer, senior government affairs policy counsel for SHRM. "We have to do things differently."
The group expects to launch a program aimed at improving how members think about the hiring process, Hammer said.
A long-term job-seeker needs to pre-empt company concerns, said Elizabeth Gill, owner of an Atlanta franchise of Express Employment Professionals. "We coach people to explain on their application why they have been out of work and what they have been doing."
Rachel Ciprotti, 34, of Decatur, Ga., has been out of work and in the job search since April. She has applied for more than 80 jobs — mostly for positions in marketing and communications — and has had three interviews.
The Dartmouth College graduate has a decade of job experience and is studying for an MBA at Kennesaw State University. "I thought being on the way to an MBA would help me get a job, but that hasn't been the case," she said. "I went to a good school. I've worked hard. I am studying for an MBA. I am involved in the community. I feel like I've done everything right, but I can't get anybody to talk to me."