"What's different is companies are bold enough to state it in job descriptions because there's so much talent available now. Hiring managers assume employed workers must be better to have survived the current economic Darwinism."
The unemployed are not considered a protected class under U.S. law, so excluding them from hiring is not illegal, says NELP's Conti. However, such practices may disproportionately affect various population groups — older workers, women, people of color and people with disabilities — who are protected.
New Jersey just passed a law banning online and print advertisements that discriminate against the unemployed, and other legislation has been introduced in Congress.
"The New Jersey law is well-intentioned, but it doesn't go far enough," says Conti. "Just because you can't run an ad doesn't mean you can't discriminate in hiring. This could drive the practice further underground."
Conti's organization is working on a bill that would ban such discrimination and ensure that unemployed workers receive the same consideration as employed workers in hiring.
A success story
Despite employer bias, some older workers are beating the system. Job support groups and a fellowship training program helped Mike White, 62, of Newington, Conn., survive 15 months of unemployment.
"I networked as much as I could because at my age almost 90 percent of jobs come through networking," says White, who was downsized in January 2010 after more than two decades in the banking and finance industries. He devoted more than 40 hours a week to online research and job support meetings where he honed interview skills and learned the latest electronic job-hunting techniques.
White was also accepted for a four-month fellowship program with Encore!Hartford, a program through the University of Connecticut that trains corporate executives for new professional positions in the nonprofit sector through classes, job shadowing and two-month unpaid internships.
"The fellowship really got my creative juices going when I was beginning to flag," he said. "I learned to recast my résumé to appeal to the nonprofit sector, which is more interested in your skills than your age."
Despite his overtures to nonprofits, White was hired as a lending officer in a financial institution in April. "What worked was fine tuning my résumé and cover letter for every job," he says. "I used key words from the job description so the computer software would not reject the initial application." In interviews, he was primed to answer any questions with detailed stories of his problem-solving prowess.