Lawyers eye jobless as clients

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
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Lawyers should be allowed to win financial damages from companies that refuse to hire unemployed people, according to a coalition of Democratic legislators, progressive advocates and entrepreneurial trial lawyers.

The existence of even a few advertisements excluding unemployed applicants in the national marketplace justifies a federal law creating a novel market for legal skills, say the advocates.

“We don’t know for sure how extensive it is … [but] if it is on one [job advertisement] website, that’s too extensive for me,” the bill’s chief backer, Ohio Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown, told the TheDC.

Brown waved away concerns by business leaders that the law would raise their costs and risks. “I don’t think think its going to mean a lawyers’ employment act,” he said.

The advocates have cited only 150 ads they say were discriminatory, a tiny percentage of all job ads according to Michael Saltsman, a research fellow at the Employment Policies Institute. Companies want to hire the most productive people they can find, he said, adding “this is an attempt to do something to take steps to help the unemployed, but it will be another barrier to people getting jobs.”

Currently, employers are free to hire, or not hire, unemployed people.

Correspondingly, there’s no opportunity for lawyers to claim discrimination against unemployed people. Lawyers are free to file suits, however, claiming discrimination on grounds of sex and race. (ALSO IN WORLD: TheDC Interview: US ambassador to Syria on what comes after Assad, witnessing regime’s brutality)

The advocacy campaign was kicked into gear by the National Employment Law Project, a union-led advocacy group.

In June, it released a report saying it has identified 150 instances where job-search websites had excluded unemployed people from applying. The sites included Monster.com and Cragislist.com. The search “suggests that the practice of excluding unemployed job seekers could be far more extensive than depicted in this limited sample,” said the report, titled “Hiring Discrimination Against the Unemployed.”

The report included a poll by Hart Research Associates that said 90 percent of respondents judged such exclusions to be unfair or very unfair.

The advocacy campaign was welcomed by Democrats, and President Barrack Obama’s new September stimulus legislation included a draft bill that would allow lawsuits if companies exclude unemployed people from interview pools.

The national unemployment rate is at least 9.1 percent.

In response to the effort, some job search sites have said that they merely post what companies advertise. Other companies, such as Indeed.com, say they bar ads that exclude unemployed people.

Law firms, however, see potential revenue amid the recession.

“We represent employes and people looking for work,” said Marilyn Widman, a partner at the law firm Allotta, Farley and Widman, based in Toledo, Ohio. The proposed law would forbid companies from openly barring unemployed applicants, but it would also allow lawyers to investigate companies that may be discriminating, she said during a joint phone press conference with Brown.

“If it a appears from all the facts that someone’s unemployment was a factor [in that person not being hired], there would be a cause of action,” and the company could be required to compensate the applicant and pay additional damages, she said.

Her firm would take cases on contingency fees, she said.

Brown’s bill would also allow the federal Department of Labor to investigate and sue companies, she said.

“When businesses are investing money to hire lawyers, that’s money they’re not using to grow their businesses and create jobs,” Saltsman said.

The controversy, he said, also gives false hopes to unemployed people. “It is false hope for somebody who is unemployed, or for a country that is grappling with the fact that our labor market has not recovered.” For politicians dealing with unemployed constituents, “it is a diversionary tactic to … another topic of conversation,” said Saltsman.

When asked about the extent of the problem, Brown said he was told by one unemployed Ohio bus driver about a company that had a policy of not hiring unemployed people. “It is not too small a problem if [even] one employment advertisement says you can’t get in the door,” he said.

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