WASHINGTON (AP) -- Are companies saying no to jobless applicants when there are job openings?
After news accounts about the practice and requests from concerned lawmakers, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has jumped in, trying to figure out whether it's widespread and could violate federal job discrimination laws.
Commissioners at an EEOC hearing Wednesday said they are investigating whether excluding the unemployed may have a greater effect on blacks, Latinos and other ethnic minorities that tend to have higher jobless rates. There are no specific legal protections for the unemployed.
"The potential for disparate impact is there," said William Spriggs, assistant secretary for policy at the Department of Labor.
Overall unemployment is 9 percent, with nearly 14 million people out of work. The jobless rate is 15.7 percent among blacks and 11.9 percent among Hispanics, according the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Spriggs said the chances of an employer considering an ethnic minority are decreased by one-third if jobless applicants are excluded. The pool of disabled applicants would be reduced by nearly 50 percent, he said.
The EEOC, which enforces job discrimination laws, has not issued any guidance on the issue.
Spriggs said it would be difficult for the government to measure the problem because most job openings are not posted publicly. The Labor Department is aware of anecdotal reports that some recent company advertisements have discouraged the unemployed from applying.
He said officials are concerned the practice could hamper the government's efforts to help millions of unemployed get back to work.
"It probably has a bigger impact in the current labor market" given the current unemployment situation, Spriggs said.
In one prominent report last year, an advertisement from Sony Ericsson, a global phone manufacturer that was recruiting workers for a new Georgia facility, was restricted to those currently employed. The company later removed the restriction after media publicity.
Christine Owens, executive director of the National Employment Law Project, said anecdotal evidence from job postings, conversations with job seekers and her interviews with officials at job placement firms suggests there may be a growing trend of excluding unemployed applicants, regardless of their qualifications.
"It's particularly significant that these representatives of staffing agencies have said there seems to be a growing practice," Owens said.
Fernan Cepero, a spokesman for the Society for Human Resource Management, said his corporate consulting firm wasa unaware of any widespread practice to discourage unemployed candidates.
"The stakes are too high for that," said Cepero, who also works as vice president for human resources at the YMCA of Greater Rochester in New York.
Cepero said it takes an average of 27 days for an employer to fill an open position, and even longer for high-tech positions. Since open positions mean lost productivity, "screening out the unemployed is unproductive," he said.