Commentary: Bill to protect unemployed job applicants could hurt employers

August 21, 2011

America finds itself mired in one of the worst economic downturns since the Great Depression, with the latest unemployment rate more than 9 percent nationally and more than 10 percent in D.C. Given the length and depth of this decline, the degree of government intervention in private economic affairs has risen to a level unseen in recent decades.

With no more pressing priority in Congress than creating jobs, the House and the Senate recently proposed near-identical versions of the Fair Employment Opportunity Act of 2011 to prohibit discrimination based on a job applicant’s unemployment status.

Despite ostensibly good intentions, Congress’s proposal has raised eyebrows for affording remarkably expansive rights and protections to job applicants and employees that go above and beyond any federal or state law or proposed law to date. If passed, the potential for substantial government intrusion in the private sector’s hiring process looms large, with several negative consequences for the workplace likely to follow.

First, Congress’s proposal would unduly broaden federal discrimination law, which, generally speaking, only protects classes of people from discrimination because of some immutable characteristic or deeply-held belief. Banning unemployment discrimination would equate an often fleeting status with a permanent condition or trait, trivializing the underlying purpose behind discrimination law to prohibit employment decisions made on account of considerations such as race, for which there is never legitimate justification.

Second, to analogize unemployment status to other protected classes opens the door for the creation of many more such classes — potentially clogging the nation’s courtrooms with frivolous lawsuits. Indeed, with the breadth of coverage of Congress’s proposal, which prohibits considering the present or past unemployment of employee candidates, employers will have no choice but to expend valuable resources and time — otherwise invested in the workplace — seeking legal counsel to avoid harsh penalties.

Third, Congress’s proposal goes too far. It not only allows the secretary of labor to penalize employers for violating the law, but lets unemployed applicants — and even employees who blow the whistle on alleged discrimination — sue the employer. By way of comparison, New Jersey’s recent law only permits its secretary of labor to fine employers for posting job advertisements that state the unemployed need not apply.

We al

so believe the labor secretary would have a far more challenging time policing the sweeping prohibitions of Congress’s proposal, as opposed to merely monitoring the contents of a job advertisement.

Finally, by and large, Congress’s proposal severely restricts an employer from inquiring into gaps in the work history of employee candidates — standard fare for any job interview. Certainly, in a bad economy there are millions of Americans who are unemployed through no fault of their own. But in good and even troubled economic times, long bouts of unemployment may bespeak a bad work ethic or some other improper behavior—a legitimate consideration for any employer.

Simply put, Congress’s proposal manifests a well-intentioned desire to help those most in need. All Americans should be sympathetic to the plight of the unemployed and demand solutions. But the potential unintended consequences of Congress’s proposal may exacerbate the disease that members of Congress so desperately seek to cure. Despite the often sincere urge to act, sometimes the road not taken is the right path.

Steven Yarusinsky is senior counsel, and Daniel L. Saperstein is an associate, in the labor and employment law department in the Newark, N.J., office of Proskauer Rose.

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