Oh, the Irony! To Get a Job, You Must Already Have a Job

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Last summer, a few disturbing job ads surfaced requiring that candidates “must be currently employed” to be considered for the openings. Nowadays, the practice of hiring only those who already have jobs is commonplace.

The sad, horrendously frustrating irony, of course, is that the people who need jobs most—the long-term unemployed—are being excluded, written off without a moment’s thought.

Federal hearings inquiring as to whether such hiring practices were tantamount to discrimination were held months ago. Yet, as the New York Times reports, hundreds of ads at popular job-hunting sites state that employers would only hire (or “strongly prefer”) candidates who currently hold jobs or were laid off very recently.

Apparently, there’s nothing illegal about the practice; unlike race, sex, or age, one’s employment status is not a category protected by discrimination laws. States could ban such language from appearing in job ads—New Jersey did so, and New York and Michigan may follow suit—but even if the words don’t appear in job postings, hiring managers could easily keep on deleting the resumes of those who haven’t been employed in quite some time. It’d be extremely difficult to prove that an employer didn’t hire someone strictly because the person was unemployed.

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From an employer’s point of view, ignoring the unemployed is an easy, sensible means to winnow the field of candidates by quickly skipping over those less likely to have up-to-date skills:

“We may be seeing what’s called statistical discrimination,” said Robert Shimer, a labor economist at the University of Chicago. “On average, these workers might be less attractive, and employers don’t bother to look more closely to pick out the good ones.”

Being out of a job for a few months can seriously hurt your chances of landing a new job, or even snagging an interview. As for the 30% of all unemployed Americans (4.4 million people) who have been out of work for more than a year, they’re pretty much screwed. So long as hiring remains slow, and the pool of people looking for jobs remains vast, employers have little incentive to consider job seekers with gaping holes in their resumes. They’d much rather focus on candidates who somehow have proven themselves worthy of continuing to collect paychecks in this awful job market.

(MORE: Why Job Hunters Shouldn’t Worry So Much About Paltry Job Growth)

Brad Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.