'Unemployed need not apply' a disturbing trend

I recently found an array of online job postings that greet seekers with these encouraging words: "MUST BE CURRENTLY EMPLOYED, NO EXCEPTIONS."

How lovely. In a country with 13.9 million unemployed residents, that's akin to a restaurant requiring a hungry person to bring a sandwich in before they can buy a sandwich.

Still, these postings are on multiple job-search sites, coming from companies ranging from retail shops to law firms.

The "unemployed need not apply" concept has become prevalent enough that it has been banned by the Legislature in New Jersey.

In Illinois, Democratic Sens. Kimberly Lightford and Annazette Collins have proposed the Employment Advertisement Fairness Act. The bill says employers may not "publish in print or on the Internet an advertisement for a job that contains a statement indicating that current employment is a job qualification."

At least two other states are considering similar bills and a federal law — the Fair Employment Opportunity Act — has also been proposed.

Allow me to use the soapbox I've been given to say this to any and all companies viewing this approach as expedient or sensible: Knock it off.

Let's set aside all possible explanations — it narrows the number of applicants that need to be interviewed, and people who've been out of work might be harder to get up to speed than people already working. This practice is simply wrong. At a time when millions — millions — of Americans are frustrated and desperate and demoralized, throwing up another roadblock to gainful employment is reprehensible.

It's also painfully shortsighted.

From a practical standpoint, companies that bar unemployed candidates could easily be overlooking the most qualified workers. The jobless pool is large and rich with talented people who lost jobs through no fault of their own. It seems counterproductive to flatly assume that a person who has a job is better than someone without one.

And then there's the matter of whether this practice is discriminatory. The unemployed are not a protected class, but legal experts say that barring the jobless from submitting applications could be de facto discrimination.

"That would be the angle one would want to take to challenge these policies," said Katherine Stone, an expert in labor and employment law at the University of California at Los Angeles School of Law. "The people who are unemployed are disproportionally minorities or older people or disabled people. You could claim that this is having a disparate impact on them."

That's one aspect of these ads being examined by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Spokeswoman Christine Saah Nazer said: "We're monitoring the situation, and unfortunately we're still seeing these ads. We're concerned that barring unemployed people may disqualify perfectly qualified candidates, including minorities. Obviously in this economic climate, the commission wants to ensure that job seekers don't experience any discriminatory practices."

She said the commission views the prevalence of these ads as "an emerging issue."

The Fair Employment Opportunity Act, introduced in July by Democratic U.S. Reps. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut and Hank Johnson of Georgia, would get on top of this problem. I spoke with a congressional aide about the bill, and she said it doesn't attempt to make the unemployed a protected class.

"It simply outlaws this practice," she said, "which is very harmful and very dark. It's not operating out of our best values. When you think of someone who's unemployed and think of all the trauma that causes in a household, economically and on a self-esteem level, to throw up barriers to even getting a job interview is just unthinkable."

One of the jobs I saw advertised recently was for a director of operations at a growing McDonald's franchise in Iowa. It said applicants must meet certain "nonnegotiable criteria," and one of those was being currently employed.

I contacted Donya Proud, a spokeswoman for McDonald's, and she said the franchise owner was not aware that the "must be currently employed" language had been put on the posting.

"That was not the direction that he gave," she said. "He has contacted the recruitment company, and they'll either change it or he'll use a different company. This is definitely not a policy that we would ever allow."

A similar explanation was given last year when media outlets in Georgia noticed a job posting by phone manufacturer Sony Ericsson that told the unemployed not to apply.

I really don't care who is to blame, whether it's the companies themselves or recruiting firms or job-search websites. A message needs to be sent, loud and clear, that this is not an approach that can be tolerated.

Most of the problems people encounter in the workplace can be so easily avoided by following one rule: Be a decent human being.

We're navigating the worst economic crisis and most miserable job market since the Great Depression. It's a moment in our history that screams out for unity, and yet much of what we see day to day in political and economic spheres is division.

We don't need companies adding to that by cordoning off jobs and allowing access only to those already employed.

It's wrong. And if business owners can't see that simple fact, a law should be put in place to remind them of the bounds of common decency.

TALK TO REX: Ask workplace questions — anonymously or by name — and share stories with Rex Huppke at ijustworkhere@tribune.com, like Rex on Facebook at facebook.com/rexworkshere and find more at chicagotribune.com/ijustworkhere.

Copyright © 2015, RedEye
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