Volume 20, Number 28 -- August 15, 2011

As I See It: Piling On

Published: August 15, 2011

by Victor Rozek

There's a phenomenon that takes place in extreme mountaineering that is perhaps illustrative of human nature. Teams ascending the highest peaks like Everest and K2 will often come upon a solo climber from another group who is clearly in trouble and in imminent danger of death. The nearer the summit, the more likely that person will be left behind. Granted, the margins at altitudes well over 20,000 feet are small, and the choices limited. But there is a "me first, me at any price" ethic that essentially says: I paid for this, I trained for this; this may be the only chance I ever have to reach the summit, and if you're in trouble, that's your problem.

A milder variation of that ethic is manifesting in the job market. The "healthy" ones are chosen and the rest are deliberately being left behind. The impersonal name for it is "statistical discrimination," but that's just a bloodless term for a vile form of opportunism whose popularity is increasing as the economy creates fewer winners and more losers.

Kelly Wiedemer, is a 45-year-old IT operations analyst who has been on the business end of statistical discrimination. The essence of her dilemma is that she can't get a job because she doesn't already have a job. Employers won't consider her because she's already unemployed. It's the ultimate Catch 22: there are job openings, but increasingly companies are telling the unemployed not to bother applying.

As the economy has forced corporations and small businesses to shed all but the most essential employees, competitors believe they can improve their positions by hiring only superior workers, who they define as the ones who are still employed. Like the oxygen-deprived mountaineer sitting at the base of the Hillary Step, just a few hundred feet from the summit of Everest, the message is clear: You're of no use if you're not climbing any longer.

Recruiters have told Wiedemer that she is a "hard sell" because she has been out of work for more than six months. Which is not surprising, because statistical discrimination is self-fulfilling: the longer you're unemployed, the longer you're likely to remain unemployed. Wiedemer has been looking for an IT position for over three years. Each day she doesn't find one makes it less likely that she will.

She's hardly alone. By official estimates, there are about 14 million unemployed Americans, the highest unemployment rate since the Great Depression. But this number is artificially low. Official counts are self-serving and do not include the under-employed, those who have exhausted their benefits, or older workers who have simply given up. There may be closer to 20 million people looking for a decent job. And rather than helping, potential employers are piling on, punishing the victims for the effects of the economy. "I feel like I am being shunned by our entire society," Wiedemer told the New York Times.

The giant tax breaks for the uber-rich, which were supposed to rain jobs upon the arid middle-class plain, have produced nary a trickle. To this point the "recovery" remains essentially jobless.

In this environment of desperation and lack, corporations are barring the unemployed from applying for the few jobs that exist. Catherine Rampell, writing for the New York Times, said the paper did a review of vacancy postings on popular job search sites like, CareerBuilder, and Craigslist. It found hundreds of employers who indicated they would only consider people who are currently employed or had just recently been laid off. "Given that the average duration of unemployment today is nine months--a record high--limiting a search to the 'recently employed,' much less the currently employed, disqualifies millions," said Rampell.

It's like being disqualified for food stamps because you're hungry.

This practice is now prevalent across a multitude of industries including: food services, sales, education, IT, accounting, health care, and the list goes on. Another ploy is examining credit histories rather than employment histories and then disqualifying applicants who are unable to pay their bills. It's the modern version of debtors prison: You can't pay your debts if you can't get a job, and you can't get a job because you haven't paid your debts.

These practices have become pervasive and troubling enough to attract the attention of lawmakers, although given the level of incompetence displayed by the Executive branch, and the mean-spirited intransigence displayed by Congress, it's hard to find reason for optimism.

To begin, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission recently held a hearing to decide if discrimination laws had been breached. An argument can be made that disqualifying the unemployed from applying for employment disproportionately effects older workers and minorities whose jobless rates are already higher. But unemployment is not a legally protected status, like sex, race or religion. So, the EEOC will most likely continue scratching its collective head, hoping lawmakers step up to solve the problem.

And some have. New Jersey, reports Rampell, recently passed a law "outlawing job ads that bar unemployed workers from applying." Michigan (which boasts an "official" unemployment rate that tops 15 percent) and New York are poised to follow. Similar legislation has been introduced in Congress. But so what? When there are hundreds of applicants for every position, who will be able to prove malicious intent when some are repeatedly rejected?

Business will argue that for somebody in a profession like Wiedemer's, three years away from the industry is problematic. In a constantly evolving field like IT, long absences put a candidate at great disadvantage. Unused skills atrophy, yesterday's expertise quickly becomes irrelevant.

But there is something disingenuous in that argument. Contributing to the unemployment cycle and then punishing a candidate for gaps in her employment record is simply currish. Rejecting candidates without even the courtesy of an interview; passing judgment on their ability and their suitability based on a statistical anomaly provoked by economic conditions, condemns millions to what Rampell accurately terms "permanent economic exile."

Perhaps the only solution is a revived economy that will once again find itself short of qualified workers. Urgency tends to make employers less fastidious and more welcoming. The issue, however, goes beyond opportunism in a time of economic duress. There is something more disturbing here. The veneer of civility has been stripped away revealing a crueler side of our nature. It's the economic version of walking by an injured climber; caring more about getting to the top than helping a fellow traveler. It's the mentality that creates exclusive clubs whose memberships are based on luck or happenstance, and shuts out the less fortunate. There's a meanness to it, a variation of the same meanness ethnic groups often display for each other: Don't even bother introducing yourself, you're not wanted here; we want someone like us.

Mountaineers in Nepal often hire Sherpas to support climbing parties. They serve as guides and carry the heavy gear. They climb with weaker clients, sometimes literally pulling them up the mountain. They often bring injured or exhausted climbers down to safety. My recollection of them when I trekked to Everest base camp was that they are a poor people, many living in huts with dirt floors. But they are enormously generous, quick to share what little they have with visitors who invariably have much more. And when misfortune strikes, their first inclination is to assist those in trouble.

It's an excellent model for ethical human behavior, on and off the mountain.

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