California Considers Outlawing Discrimination Against Unemployed

Lawmakers are trying to make California the second state in the nation to ban hiring discrimination against the unemployed.

A bill introduced Jan. 5 and sponsored by Democratic Assemblyman Michael Allen wouldn't allow unemployed job-seekers to sue for discrimination, but companies that violate the law would face investigation and fines of up to $10,000.

"There's been an increasing utilization of using this as a crude screening process to keep applicants from even being interviewed," Allen told The Huffington Post. "It's better to be proactive rather than to let this become a common practice."

Allen, who is also a labor attorney, said discrimination against the unemployed could specifically harm recent military veterans, minority groups with historically high unemployment and women who take maternity leave.

California has an unemployment rate of 11.3 percent, compared to about 8.5 percent nationally.

Discrimination against the unemployed makes it even harder for the laid off to re-enter the workforce, The National Employment Law Project found. In a one-month study last year, the group found more than 125 online job postings that required candidates to be "currently employed," for positions ranging from insurance agent to university research supervisor to sous chef.

Allen said that although the bill is broad, its reach doesn't go too far. "Once the law is implemented, usually it's pretty clear what questions are legitimate," he said. "Obviously, employers want to know about experience, work history, that sort of thing. If they start dwelling on the fact that the applicant is currently unemployed, that's when a red flag would go up."

But some business groups oppose a blanket ban on ruling out the unemployed, saying it's important that employers can look for workers with up-to-date experience and ask about gaps on an applicant's resume without fearing retribution.

One restaurant staffing agency based in Georgia told The Huffington Post that candidates who already have a job are more likely to be applying "for the right reasons."

Last April, New Jersey became the first state to ban overt discrimination against the unemployed. Under the New Jersey law, employers can consider employment status in hiring, but can't specifically bar those without jobs from applying. Employers who violate the ban face a $1,000 fine, and a $5,000 penalty for subsequent offenses. A cleaning equipment manufacturer in Ewing, N.J. was the first to be hit with the fine, seven months after the ban became law.

The California bill would go further by making the unemployed a protected class under anti-discrimination law. Allen said it's too early to tell whether the bill will be controversial, but he expects to have a good idea within the next two or three months.

Democratic members of Congress and President Obama have also targeted discrimination against the unemployed, but measures to ban the practice have never gained traction in Congress. Such initiatives would make it illegal nationwide to refuse to consider a candidate without a current job.