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Need a Job to Get a Job? Not in New York City

Amy Traub

My client only wants to look at employed candidates,”  said one recruiter. “The company. . . will not interview any professional not presently working,” said another. “Candidate MUST be currently employed . . .  "employed or only recently unemployed. . ." "require current (or very recent) tenure,” read 150 help wanted ads enumerated by the National Employment Law Project (NELP) as part of a four-week survey. All of this adds up to very bad news for the millions of Americans looking for work who lack one qualification suddenly deemed crucial: a current job.   

If it takes a job to get a job, what are the unemployed -- and especially those inhabiting the still swollen ranks of long-term unemployed -- supposed to do? In New York City, this is one barrier to employment that may soon be toppled. Yesterday the City Council passed legislation prohibiting discrimination based on an individual’s unemployment status

Under the bill, job postings with language excluding the unemployed will be banned, and unemployed workers can no longer be arbitrarily excluded from consideration for a job. Significantly, the legislation also directs the city’s Commission on Human Rights to educate employers, employment agencies and job seekers about the new law so that its provisions will not go overlooked or unnoticed. While Mayor Bloomberg has said he will veto the legislation, the Council has sufficient votes to override it.

If enacted, the law will be a boon for more than 300,000 out-of-work New Yorkers. According to the Fiscal Policy Institute, the average length of unemployment in New York City is 41.9 weeks --approximately 10.5 months. But the burden of joblessness does not hit all of the city’s communities equally: African Americans and Latinos experience much higher rates of unemployment in New York City and the nation as a whole, and  the average length of time out of work is longer for African Americans. In effect, hiring discrimination against the unemployed compounds racial discrimination in hiring -- meaning that the bill is also an important civil rights measure.

When America’s largest city takes action, the nation takes notice. The legislation sends a powerful message to employers and staffing firms across the country that discrimination against the unemployed is intolerable. At the same time, it lays the groundwork for New York City itself to move forward on legislation removing another illegitimate barrier to employment: the use of credit checks in hiring. Intro 857,  prohibiting discrimination based on one's consumer credit history, was introduced in May 2012 and is still awaiting a hearing. It too has a veto-proof majority of co-sponsors. Having taken one important step toward ending employment discrimination, New York City is well-positioned to take the next.