People who have been without work for a long period of time are hurting. Even the most tenacious job seeker becomes discouraged over time, and their skills inevitably erode. The longer you are out of a job, the less attractive you become to employers, who wonder why you cannot find work. It is a vicious cycle, and your ability to support yourself and your family deteriorates.
Although some things have improved since the Great Recession, the job prospects for the long-term unemployed have not. Many companies now explicitly advertise that they will not accept job applications from people who are not currently working elsewhere.
That is why it is a good thing that President Barack Obama used his State of the Union address to address the issue. The president’s call to help the long-term unemployed is right in line with his larger theme of creating good jobs to help bolster the middle class as part of an “opportunity agenda.”
But the president’s choice of tactics is important and revealing. We have laws that protect ethnic minorities, women, seniors and people with disabilities, among other groups, from employers discriminating against them. The president did not call for amending these laws to include the long-term unemployed. Instead, he noted that he has been making the case to CEOs that they should work harder to try to hire the long-term unemployed and not adopt procedures in hiring that operate to exclude them. Companies including Bank of America, Xerox, AT&T and Lockheed Martin are reportedly already on board. And the president plans to convene a forum this week at the White House to persuade others.
It makes sense that the president would try to take the case directly to companies rather than wait for new laws. Congress has not demonstrated a recent ability to get any laws passed, and distrust of the institution is at an all-time low. Waiting for Congress is tantamount to no action at all. A handful of states have discrimination laws that protect the long-term unemployed, but there is no evidence that these laws are making any great impact. One of the lessons of the past 20 years is that private businesses and corporations are important actors in creating change in areas like employment, health care and environmental matters.
But we need to be cautious and realistic about the impact of getting CEOs of even major corporations to publicly announce they will not discriminate against the long-term unemployed. Real change will be slow, will take a lot of work and will require the structures of law to help support it.
Even if employers truly follow through on their commitments, people who have been out of work for a long time still will not get jobs if they are not as competitive as other applicants. If their skills have deteriorated to the point where they are no longer qualified, giving them an opportunity to get through the door won’t really matter. So as part of any plan to help the long-term unemployed to again get jobs, we must invest more than we do now in job retraining and social support. This requires resources and partnerships with state and local governments.
And true organizational change does not come exclusively from even strongly expressed preferences of CEOs, although that is certainly important. Modern hiring decisions and processes are complex, involving nuanced decisions made by multiple people. Even among the most well-meaning hiring managers, stigma and bias enter the equation. The lessons from integrating women, minorities and people with disabilities into the workplace are that there will always be a “neutral” or “legitimate” reason to not hire someone from a traditionally disfavored group.
Changing this requires changing culture, which takes time and commitment. And law provides the necessary accountability and the consequences for noncompliance. In six months, the public will not remember which companies committed to exactly what regarding the long-term unemployed. But if these companies know there are legal ramifications, even modest ones, to blatant discrimination against these job seekers, it helps them stay accountable. Law cannot work alone, but it needs to be part of the picture.
Obama was right to bring attention to this important issue, and his strategy of persuading CEOs to support his efforts is crucial. But true change will require investments in related programs and the support that law can bring. Having a permanent lost generation of workers is in no one’s interest, so it is important we see this effort through.
Michael Waterstone is a professor at Loyola Law School, Los Angeles, where his courses focus on employment law and disability rights law.