Monday, February 1, 2010

Can I claim geographic bias?

There should be a new "protected class" under federal labor law, the outlier.

Now understand I'm being facetious here -- or at least only half serious. I appreciate the fact that federal and state laws exist to protect workers and job applicants from discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, age (40 or older) and disability.

Indeed, when I joined the ranks of unemployed journalist last summer, my former employer was careful to detail how no protected-class rights had been violated as I was shown the door.

As a job applicant, though, I see another hurdle: geography.

Twice recently I've felt that being from out-of-town worked against me. It's not something I could prove easily (no discrimination is), but the language used was similar as I was told another candidate had been hired because he/she could "hit the ground running."

Both times I had interviewed on my own dime, driving 400 miles to meet face-to-face. Both times I had emphasized my knowledge of the area and ease of navigating from one end of town to the other. Both times I had underscored my ability to start right away because I already had a place to live (an apartment I'm tending while the tenant is out of the country).

Both times, nada. I lost out to a local candidate.

Just last month, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reported that the 2009 fiscal year, ended Sept. 30, saw the second-highest rate on record of claims alleging discrimination in the workplace. The Great Recession and its attendant layoffs and furloughs have been blamed.

Groups catering to employers have sounded a warning about the number, and companies that provide management training are drawing attention to their services. (One, ELT, an online trainer, offers this sobering statistic: For every 1.5 percent increase in the unemployment rate -- which now is at a near-record 10 percent nationally -- there is a corresponding 21 percent increase in discrimination claims.)

With so many seasoned workers affected by layoffs, it's no surprise the EEOC saw age-discrimination claims reach 22,778 last year, vs. 24,582 in FY2008 and 14,141 a decade earlier. That ranked below claims based on race (33,579), sex (28,028) and retaliation (33,613), but some job applicants say they continue to feel the age sting.

For me, though, it's a sense of being penalized as an outlier. And as one, I'm trapped in a classic Catch-22: I can't get a job until I move to an area and I can't move to an area until I get a job.

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