longterm unemployment

President Obama's long-term unemployment shuffle

January 28, 2014: 3:55 PM ET

While the president will make a big to-do about corporate pledges against discrimination of the long-term jobless, in some parts of the country the law is already ahead of him.

Obama longterm unemployment M

FORTUNE -- In his State of the Union address Tuesday night, President Barack Obama is expected to call for major corporations to pledge to not discriminate against the long-term unemployed.

Companies like Lockheed Martin (LMT), AT&T (T), Procter & Gamble (PG), and Xerox (XRX) have already signed on.

While the president will make a big to-do about these pledges against discrimination, in some parts of the country the law is already ahead of him. And he should hope that his initiative doesn't meet the laws' fate: in existence, but without much punch.

Red flags over prejudice toward the unemployed started popping up in 2010, when the fine print of some job listings stated that only currently employed candidates would be considered.

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A 2010 posting for a job opening at a warehouse job in the Atlanta area, for instance, said that "if you have not worked since 2009, do not apply."

Such job ads set off the first wave of outrage that now, with 10.4 million Americans out of a job, is being revisited. In July 2011, two Democratic congressman introduced a bill to prohibit discrimination in employment on the basis of an individual's status or history of unemployment. A month later, three Democratic senators introduced a similar bill, and President Obama voiced support for the legislation.

But nothing came of those proposals. Nada. Zip. Zilch. Neither chamber ever brought the bills to a vote.

What happened next has become commonplace in an era of lax congressional productivity: States and cities have begun to enact their own legislation to address the issue on the local level.

But many of those laws, while good-intentioned, are toothless.

In 2011 and 2012, respectively, New Jersey and Oregon passed laws that prohibit employers from posting job ads with language that explicitly discriminates against the unemployed. But both state laws didn't outlaw prejudice against the unemployed at other stages of the hiring process. Washington, D.C. later passed the Unemployed Anti-Discrimination Act of 2012, but the agency charged with enforcing the law is currently unfunded.

The most potent law passed so far: New York City's ban on hiring discrimination against unemployed job seekers, which the city council passed in January 2013 over Mayor Michael Bloomberg's veto. It gives job hunters the right to sue an allegedly discriminatory employer. It's a bit early to tell if the law is effective, though no complaints have been filed since the law went into effect in June, according to a spokeswoman from the city's Commission on Human Rights.

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The laws are a "hodgepodge," says Maurice Emselllem, program director at The National Law Employment Project. "It's very important to get to the point where laws regulate all states of hiring practices." Though just as important, he says, are job programs like Platform to Employment or P2E, a public-private job training program for the long-term unemployed that's been deployed in cities like Chicago, Cincinnati, and San Diego. Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy, who on Tuesday announced new funding for the program in his state, said between 80% and 90% of the people who have participated in the program have found jobs.

The president's taking a stand on the issue certainly can't hurt. "It's an important measure," says Emsellem. "To get the biggest corporations in one room talking about this issue will change some minds and create some movement, but it's not enough by itself."

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