Maine’s unemployment rate in December fell to the lowest point it has been since 2008, but one section of the unemployed population, those without a job for half a year or more, hasn’t shown significant declines in the state or country since the recession.
Those unemployed for an extended period of time can also be caught in a difficult catch-22 — the longer they’re out of work, the less likely they’ll be hired.
Although some of the top employers in the state say they don’t discriminate against applicants out of work for an extended period of time, unemployment experts in Maine said they’ve heard of companies doing just that.
“One of the biggest challenges are employers who are not willing to consider long-term unemployed,” said Mary LaFontaine, manager at the Lewiston CareerCenter.
LaFontaine said employers have told her that once someone is unemployed for a certain amount of time, they won’t even look at the candidate. She said the length of time varies by company, but she declined to say what companies have stated that type of policy.
Nationally, multiple studies have shown that employers are less likely to consider someone for a job the longer that person has been unemployed.
To combat the situation, President Barack Obama announced Friday that over 300 companies, including 20 members of the Fortune 50, signed a pledge to not discriminate against the unemployed and to ensure their hiring practices don’t put applicants at a disadvantage based on their employment status. Obama also called on lawmakers to extend the emergency unemployment benefits that expired for 1.3 million long-term unemployed at the end of last year.
In a study last year, Rand Ghayad of Northeastern University sent out 4,800 fake resumes for 600 job openings and found that employers were more likely to call back candidates with no relevant experience who were unemployed for a short time than more qualified candidates unemployed for six months or more.
Obama cited the study as well as another from 2013 that showed callbacks from employers are 45 percent lower for people unemployed for eight months compared to those unemployed for just one month.
A spokesman for Hannaford Bros. Co., the top private employer in the state of Maine, said the regional grocery chain doesn’t discriminate against the long-term unemployed.
“We do not screen anyone because of their unemployment status or length of unemployment. Our focus is on skills and fit,” said spokesman Eric Blom.
L.L. Bean Inc., the fifth largest private employer in the state, doesn’t screen people out because of their employment status, Carolyn Beem, the outdoor retailer’s spokeswoman, said.
“It’s more of a matter of looking at the person,” said Beem. “If someone has been out of work a year, we might ask, âWhat’s going on, what have you been doing?’ Our initial reaction is always let’s talk to them if they look like a good candidate.”
Staying active by volunteering or taking classes is a way for unemployed people to improve their chances of being hired, LaFontaine said. The career center manager said those kinds of activities can improve people’s emotional health, something employers could be concerned about besides a person’s skill set.
“Not only does that keep them in the work mindset, it also helps keep their positive spirit or attitude in a positive place. It will greatly help them in the job search,” LaFontaine said.
The state operates 12 full-service CareerCenters where people who are unemployed can get assessments of their skills and search for new jobs, said Julie Rabinowitz, the spokeswoman for the Maine Department of Labor. The centers also help with basic computer and job-searching skills such as resume writing and interviewing, she said, and refer people to training and educational programs for specific job skills.
Rabinowitz said a goal of the programs is to reduce long-term unemployment — a number that spiked after the Great Recession and hasn’t dropped much since 2010.
The percent of the total unemployed who have been out of work for at least 27 weeks, the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ definition of long-term unemployment, more than doubled between 2008 and 2009 in Maine, from 13.3 percent to 28.1 percent, according to the bureau. It rose again in 2010 to 36.8 percent and has remained around 37 percent since.
Data from the bureau’s Current Population Survey hasn’t been released for 2012, but the most recent preliminary data from the bureau showed the percentage for last December at 37.1 percent in the U.S., down slightly from December 2012.
Rabinowitz said she’s anecdotally heard of employers discriminating against the long-term unemployed, and lawmakers in Maine, as well as other states, have proposed bills to make it illegal. However, she said, it’s difficult to quantify and prove.
“What we’re here to do is make our clients, through the CareerCenter, as hireable as they can be so that becomes less relevant,” Rabinowitz said.
She said another challenge of getting the unemployed back into the workforce is that often people want to hold out for jobs that paid equal to what they were making before. It can be particularly challenging to find similar replacement jobs for older workers in more rural areas, Rabinowitz said, because many of the jobs have moved to more metropolitan areas. Older workers tend to have mortgages or own homes and are less mobile, she said.
Rabinowitz said it can be difficult to convince people “that continuing to hold out for an opportunity that doesn’t look like it’s going to come is not the right choice. They need to change strategies and start training for a new career.”
New careers likely will pay less than what workers were paid before, said Philip Trostel, a professor of economy at the University of Maine.
Sustained long-term unemployment is damaging to the economy because the economy is not reaching its productivity potential, and people returning to the workforce will likely have lower wages, Trostel said. He compared it to falling back ten years in terms of career trajectory and pay. People might not immediately want to take a job with a 20 percent pay cut, he said.
“They ultimately realize, âOh, that’s the new reality for me,'” Trostel said. “It’s a harsh reality. I certainly wouldn’t blame someone for not wanting to face that.”