Amidst all the buzz about a growing bias against the unemployed across the nation, legislators have introduced a new bill to combat this form of employment discrimination. The Fair Employment Opportunity Act (FEOA) was introduced on January 29, 2014 in the chambers of Representative Rosa De Lauro (D-CT), Senator Richard Bloomenthal (D-CT) and Representative Hank Johnson (D-GA). The bill is currently in committee awaiting a vote in the House or Senate.

The FEOA is specifically written to address the discrimination faced by unemployed workers. The group is growing in numbers and percentages across the employment spectrum, with the bias against it affecting every sector of private and public industry.

The Fair Employment Opportunity Act of 2011 and the American Jobs Act

Both the Fair Employment Act of 2011 and the American Jobs Act were bills that preceded the FEOA, failing to gain enough support in Congress to be passed into law. Like the FEOA, the Fair Employment Act was introduced by the same legislators. It, too, would have prohibited discrimination against the unemployed and created a cause of action against employers acting in violation of the law.

The American Jobs Act was introduced by President Obama during a 2012 State of the Union address. It would have distinguished the unemployed as a separate protected class similar to the protected classes in Title VII. However, the American Jobs Act was filibustered by Republicans on the Senate floor.

It’s prohibition against unemployed discrimination have not been forgotten, however. The President held a gathering recently bringing together several of the nation’s top corporations to agree to redesign their hiring policies in accordance with a set of best practices aimed at eliminating discrimination against the unemployed.

Hearings on the Unemployed Issue in the EEOC and in the Senate

Back in 2011, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) held a hearing on the issue of unemployed discrimination, bringing together several experts and analysts. The group explored the growing difficulties that unemployed workers face while looking for work and made recommendations for EEOC policy.

At the hearing, then EEOC chairwoman Jacqueline Berrien noted the “emerging practice of excluding unemployed persons from applicant pools.” The public hearing came about as a result of 2010 media stories highlighting the growing trend as well as anecdotal reports fielded by the agency the previous summer. Chairwoman Berrien initiated a probe into the the reports in order to consider next steps for the agency.

Since then, the EEOC has kept quiet about unemployment bias, but the hearings put many employers on alert about the use of discriminatory language in job ads and about the possibility of bias claims based on discriminatory hiring practices. Today’s lagging economic recovery is likely to further highlight the issue of unemployment bias, and, if the Fair Employment Opportunity Act of 2014 passes, the topic will certainly put employers on notice.

States and Local Districts Addressing the Unemployed Discrimination Issue

While federal law awaits approval in Congress and the EEOC continues its probe, states have already embraced the concept of a workforce free of unemployed discrimination. Roughly 22 states have passed laws protecting the unemployed from discriminatory hiring practices with some also prohibiting the use of discriminatory language in job advertisements. The first state to do so was New Jersey followed by Oregon.

Local jurisdictions and districts have also come to realize the plight of the unemployed in today’s workforce. New York City has placed unemployed discrimination legislation on its agenda and the city council has already approved the law. The District of Columbia, too, has prohibited discrimination against the unemployed.

What the FEAO Can Do For You

The provision allowing employees to file a private cause of action against employers in violation of the laws is perhaps the most important and relevant for currently unemployed workers. It means that if an employee suspects they have been refused a position based on their unemployed status, they could sue that employer for compensatory and punitive damages. This is a big step forward for workers set back by months and even years of rejection in the job seeking process.

The bill also takes discrimination protection one step further. It prohibits the use of discriminatory language in job advertisements. Specifically, it requires employers to refrain from referring to an applicant’s employment status in job ads and prohibits the use of language that indicates the unemployed need not apply. The ads have popped up around the country, placing the unemployed into a frustrating catch-22 situation.

Is Unemployed Discrimination Really an Issue?

While numerous studies have prompted a focus on unemployed discrimination, some are skeptical about whether the issue is truly a problem. Some experts and analysts warn that legislation aimed at eliminating discrimination against the unemployed is a solution looking for a problem.

Back in 2011 when the issue first surfaced the atmosphere was much the same. For instance, the National Employment Law Project sampled ads posted on a popular jobs sites and found only 100 specifically excluding the unemployed.The Labor Department, after a review of job postings and ads, failed to find evidence that the practice was widespread.

Today, however, more and more stories are beginning to surface that tell of the difficulties the long-term unemployed face in securing a full-time job. Researchers are also backing up the anecdotes with evidence that there at least some bias is occurring in industries across the nation.

If You Think You’ve Experienced Unemployed Bias…

Whether or not the practice of hiring bias based on employment status is widespread, there are steps you can take if you suspect your lack of employment prompted a job rejection. Always locate a competent lawyer with experience in employment discrimination law issues. A lawyer can analyze your complaint based on current employment discrimination law and give solid advice about the legality of your claim.