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NYC passes unemployment discrimination law — should Minnesota?

Overriding a veto by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the New York City Council just passed a major new piece of employee rights legislation. The new ordinance prohibits all employers in the city from discrimination in hiring based on a job applicant’s unemployment status. New Jersey, Oregon and Washington, D.C., have already passed laws protecting out-of-work applicants from discrimination. Should Minnesota follow suit?

When people are essentially required to have an existing job in order to get a job, says the speaker of the NYC council, is “the ultimate kick in the tuchus.” Yet it’s happening all the time.

Over the course of the Great Recession, reports have been flowing in about rampant unemployment discrimination, which isn’t currently against the law. At its height, many highly qualified job seekers found themselves on unemployment for as long as two years or more, forced to rely on periodic extensions of federal unemployment benefits while sinking deeper into economic troubles. Many, worrying that their skills were getting rusty, sought volunteer positions at local charities only to be turned away because of the large volume of volunteers.

Employers, too, worried about the potential that applicants’ skills might atrophy in the absence of meaningful work. One of the business organizations that objected to New York City’s new law based their opposition on the fear that it would take these workers too long to ramp back up.

With his veto, Mayor Bloomberg said that he opposed the bill because it might lead to a flood of litigation by disgruntled job seekers. He pointed out that New Jersey’s law allows people to file workplace discrimination lawsuits seeking damages from companies they believe shot them down based on their out-of-work status.

How serious are these worries? For one thing, it’s not clear at all that workers’ skills break down over a period of unemployment. While stories abound of highly qualified applicants being turned down due to unemployment, the media has not been filled with reports of newly hired, previously unemployed workers who can’t perform the work they were hired to do.

For another, while employment discrimination lawsuits are no one’s ideal way to resolve cases of alleged discrimination in hiring, they do work. Our judicial system has a long track record of dealing successfully with such cases, even when they’re hard to prove, and even when new groups are given legal protection.

So, what do you think? Is unemployment discrimination a problem in Minnesota? If it is, should we work toward banning the practice?

Source: New York Business Journal, “New Yorkers will now be able to get a job without having a job,” March 14, 2013

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