Robert Spidella, an accountant in Pinellas Park who has been unemployed nearly three years, thought he'd be a perfect fit for an opening advertised by staffing agency Aerotek. An e-mail from the company set him straight.
"Sorry Robert, but we are looking for someone who has experience in the past year with Accounts Receivable," recruiter Angela Griffin wrote.
Spidella's "jobless" status always seems to trump his 30-plus years of experience. Even when he lands an interview, the job invariably goes to someone who already has one.
It's one of the great ironies of the Great Recession: Those most in need of a job are least likely to get one.
Advocates of the long-term unemployed say employer bias against hiring an out-of-work person has grown into a form of discrimination that's not only persistent and pervasive but downright blatant.
A recent report by the National Employment Law Project, a worker advocacy group, cited 150 ads in which prospective employers excluded applicants solely because they didn't have a job: A posting for an Allstate Insurance job in Huntsville, Ala., specified that applicants "must be currently employed." A posting for a senior accountant in Miami targeted someone who "is currently/recently employed." A posting for an attorney in Jacksonville stated applicants "must be currently employed."
A week ago, the group sent out an e-mail seeking discrimination anecdotes from unemployed job seekers. It received 120 responses in a few days.
Most respondents gave a similar story: They had applied for a job online and were contacted by phone or e-mail because they met the qualifications. Once the recruiter found out the applicant had been out of work for at least 90 days, the company's interest stopped there.
"Over and over and over again it was happening," said Mitchell Hirsch, who coordinated the e-mail campaign. "We were shocked at how widespread it had become."
Sometimes, Hirsch said, the cut-off is subtle. Some online applications ask candidates to provide their employer's contact information. If the field is blank, the application isn't processed.
Earlier this month, U.S. Reps. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut and Henry Johnson Jr. of Georgia introduced a measure that would prohibit employers and employment agencies from excluding applicants solely based on work status. Thirty co-sponsors have signed on.
"In a tough job market, where workers are competing against tens and sometimes hundreds of others for every available job opening, it is unjust for employers to discriminate against those who are unemployed," DeLauro said.
Even if the bill gains traction, it still only requires employers to "consider" unemployed applicants.
Reasons for stigma
Roughly a third of the country's 14 million jobless have been out of work at least a year. That doesn't include discouraged workers who have given up.
Out of nearly 1 million Floridians counted as unemployed, about 33.7 percent have been looking at least a year, the seventh-highest percentage among all states, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis this week.
Employer bias against the jobless typically has been attributed to concerns that the worker has either lost skills, demonstrated a diminished work ethic or left a previous job under a cloud.
"Certainly, for a full-time position, is there a preference that someone is coming from an existing (job)? Yes. But is there a greater preference in finding a great candidate? Yes," said Doug Arms, senior vice president for staffing firm Ajilon in Tampa.
"It may not be so sinister" when a company insists on hiring someone already employed, Arms said, particularly if the position is in the medical or technological field, where it's important a person's skills are up to date along with their knowledge of fast-shifting regulations.
However, a study in March found that employers were predisposed against unemployed job seekers regardless of other circumstances. The bias held even if candidates had similar skill sets as their employed counterparts and no signs of problems in a previous job.
"We were surprised to find that, all things being equal, unemployed applicants were viewed as less competent, warm and hireable than employed individuals," said lead researcher Geoffrey Ho at UCLA Anderson School of Management, which conducted the study with State University of New York–Stony Brook.
Terms of departure also mattered little. "Job candidates who said they voluntarily left a position faced the same stigma as job candidates who said they had been laid off or terminated," Ho said.
In February, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission held a hearing to examine job postings that indicated unemployed workers need not apply. "The commissioners are still reviewing the testimony, meeting materials and monitoring this emerging practice," EEOC spokeswoman Christine Nazer said Thursday.
"The EEOC is concerned that barring unemployed persons may exclude qualified job-seekers and some minority groups, and therefore may be discriminatory under civil rights law," Nazer added.
Meanwhile, Spidella, the unemployed accountant from Pinellas Park, has made it his mission to convince employers to think first of hiring someone out of work. He'd love to spur a state, or even national, campaign.
His argument, communicated via dozens of e-mails to Florida Gov. Rick Scott and other officials, is that hiring someone who already has another job only moves people around.
"If the employers are not hiring the unemployed, the unemployment figure will not go down," Spidella said. "But if these workers were hired, you could save billions on unemployment benefits and other government funding like food stamps, cash assistance, etc."
Companies should do it "if not for their own good then for the good of the United States," he said.
Jeff Harrington can be reached at (727) 893-8242 or firstname.lastname@example.org.