Give the Jobless a Fair Chance

“Unemployed need not apply.”

That’s becoming the disgraceful message of many employers — who have a large pool of employed candidates to choose from — to job applicants. Employers are sifting out résumés of candidates who have lost their jobs, subjecting the jobless to a ruthless Catch-22: How does someone out of work get a job if you must have a job to get a job?

Although officially the Great Recession ended in 2009, that news has been of little cheer to the millions still unemployed after the economy cratered in 2007. Friday’s dismal job numbers only reinforced the bitter truth that the halting economic upswing has been mostly a jobless recovery — GDP growth without the usual parallel growth in jobs. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, unemployment inched up to 7.9 percent last month. The rate is around 14 percent if the number of those who have given up looking for work and the number of underemployed is factored in, and the long-term unemployed — those out of work for longer than six months — is at a staggering 4.7 million. For the unemployed, the recession is still going strong.

In order to get back on their feet, the unemployed, and particularly, the long-term unemployed, need a level playing field, not one where they will be unfairly discriminated against. That’s why we fully support the New York City Council’s passing of a bill to prohibit discrimination against the jobless. The Council overwhelmingly passed the bill by a margin of 44-4.

The measure amounts to the toughest in the nation. While New Jersey and Oregon have passed legislation against employers who exclude applicants in ads, and in Washington, D.C., applicants have recourse to file a complaint with the city’s Office of Human Rights, the Council’s bill will grant job seekers who suspect discrimination the right to sue employers in court.

Mayor Bloomberg has threatened to veto the bill, criticizing it as “one of the most misguided pieces of legislation” and predicting that a rash of lawsuits would be “devastating” to small business. That’s a disappointing stance from the mayor and flies in the face of the city’s long-standing tradition to have total intolerance to discrimination of any kind. The New York City Human Rights law, one the most comprehensive anywhere, protects New Yorkers from “discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations based on race, color, creed, age, national origin, alienage or citizenship status, gender and marital status.” Even those who have been arrested or convicted of a crime are protected from job and housing discrimination. Why should those thrown out of work have less legal protection in the job market than those who robbed a bank?

But of course government shouldn’t only intervene against jobless discrimination with the strong arm of the law. The best and most effective way to end discrimination against the jobless is to provide training that’s better aligned with the skills employers need. If the unemployed show up to interviews with fresh and desired skill sets, it would be more difficult for employers to find a reason to turn them down. Despite the poor job recovery, there are numerous job opportunities for highly-skilled technical workers. The U.S. will grant 65,000 H1-B visas in 2013 to foreign workers in the engineering, science and computer programming fields. Another 20,000 will be issued to those possessing masters or doctorate degrees, who are able to fill more advanced roles. That means companies are importing foreign labor because we don’t — or the perception is that we don’t — have the expertise here in the U.S. to fill those positions.

New York City has to also sweeten the pot for companies who fill a H1-B slot with an unemployed worker. The incentive could be in the form of tax breaks or by giving companies an advantage in bidding for government projects. Corporations with either headquarters or a large presence in New York are filling open job positions with H1-B labor. IBM, Deloitte, Microsoft, Google and even the New York City public school system and Columbia University are only some of the companies that have hundreds if not thousands of positions staffed with workers holding H1-B visas. It’s in the economic interest of New York City to hire as many indigenous workers as possible: Lower unemployment will reduce the budget of social service agencies that are now providing assistance to the unemployed. Besides, foreign workers tend to ship a lot of their income back home, while New Yorkers will spend it right here at home.

The mayor should not fret so much about the debatable “devastating” impact of a law that’s only as fair as other anti-discriminatory laws, but rather on the truly devastating blow such discrimination has on New York City’s unemployed. No study that we know of has correlated an adverse effect on the profit margin of businesses that have to uphold a law against racial or religious discrimination.

If small businesses weigh their hiring decisions solely on competence, they will not have to fear being dragged into courts. Workers should be judged by the positive contributions they can bring to the workplace and not by a misfortune brought on by events beyond their control.

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