WASHINGTON -- Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, employers cannot discriminate against applicants based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) introduced legislation on Wednesday that would add unemployed people to that list of protected groups.
The Fair Employment Act of 2011 (H.R. 1113), drafted by Johnson and co-sponsored by Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr. (D-Ill.), would amend the Civil Rights Act to make it illegal for employers to refuse to hire or to lower compensation for a person because of employment status. Johnson said he wrote the legislation because he was troubled by the ongoing phenomenon of job ads specifying that a candidate "must be currently employed."
"I just thought about how unfair that was, to discriminate against people who had lost their jobs due to no fault of their own, who were just victims of corporate downsizing during a tough economy," he told HuffPost. "And then to be penalized for having that status is very unfair. It reminded me of the days when blacks were told to not apply for jobs, when job ads said 'No women allowed.' This really affected me, and I decided that there was something that we could do."
Johnson said if the bill passes, the burden of proof would be on the plaintiff to show that he or she was discriminated against based on employment status. While this kind of discrimination may be difficult to prove, Johnson said, he thinks the legislation will stop employers from using discriminatory language in their job ads and refusing to look at resumés from jobless applicants.
"The state of the law is pretty tough on claimants in Title VII cases to prevail, but nevertheless, we do have successful claimants, and this legislation will simply put employers on notice that it's not in their best interest to run ads saying 'no unemployed people need apply,' or other things such as that that would show that they are prejudiced against the unemployed," he said.
While employers and staffing firms are often quick to deny that they discriminate based on employment status, job ads can be found all over the internet openly requiring that candidates already have a job. A law firm in New York City, for example, has a live ad on its website for a legal secretary who "must be currently employed," and the staffing firm Grobard and Associates posted an ad for a "currently employed" medical salesperson on Monster.com.
Eileen Grobard, the president of Grobard and Associates, emphatically denies discriminating against the jobless despite the job ads she posts containing explicitly discriminatory language.
"We do not discriminate against unemployed people," she told HuffPost. "Ninety percent of the people we place are unemployed. This one client that we have requires very, very current technical experience, so that is the only reason candidates have to be currently employed for that one."
Johnson said he expects his bill to receive bipartisan support because unemployment is still soaring at 9.5 percent, and every lawmaker's constituents could use the protection.
"We've got people from all demographics who are afflicted with the scourge of unemployment," he said. "We've got fourteen million Americans unemployed right now, and this legislation helps to protect their right to work."
Correction: Rep. Jesse Jackson is not a co-sponsor at this time.
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