• The San Juan Daily Star

Jobless for a year? That might be less of a problem now.

By Sydney Ember

Jamie Baxter used to be skeptical of job applicants who had not worked for long stretches of time, assuming that other employers had passed them over.

“My mind would jump to the negative stigma of ‘Wow, why could this person not get a job for this long?’” said Baxter, who is CEO of Qwick, a temporary staffing company for the hospitality industry.

Yet recently, he has hired at least half a dozen people who had been out of work for several months or longer. The pandemic, he said, “made me open my eyes.”

Baxter’s change of heart reflects an apparent willingness among employers in the pandemic era to hire applicants who have been jobless for long periods. That is a break from the last recession, when long-term unemployment became self-perpetuating for millions of Americans. People who had gone without a job for months or years found it very difficult to find a new one, in part because employers avoided them.

The importance of what are often referred to as “resume gaps” is fading, experts say, because of labor shortages and more bosses seeming to realize that long absences from the job market should not taint candidates. This is good news for the 2.2 million people who have been out of work for more than six months, and are considered long-term unemployed, according to the Labor Department, double the number before the pandemic.

But that change may not last if more people decide to return to the job market or if the economy cools because of another wave of coronavirus cases, experts say.

Baxter, whose company is based in Phoenix, said he has learned from his own experience. Forced to lay off roughly 70% of his 54 employees when the pandemic hit, he realized he was responsible for creating the very employment gaps he had once used to screen out job applicants.

“I knew I was creating employment gaps,” he said. “Maybe other people would have employment gaps for very justifiable reasons. It doesn’t mean that they are not a good employee.”

Even in normal times, the long-term unemployed face steep odds. The longer applicants are out of work, the more they may become discouraged and the less time they may spend searching for jobs. Their skills may deteriorate or their professional networks may erode.

Some employers regard applicants with long periods of unemployment unfavorably, research shows — even if many are reluctant to admit it.

“Employers don’t often articulate why but the idea, they believe, is that people who are out of work are damaged in some way, which is why they are out of work” said Peter Cappelli, director of the Center for Human Resources at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

Some economists believe the pandemic’s unique effects on the economy may have changed things. Notably, the pandemic destroyed millions of jobs seemingly all at once, especially in the travel, leisure and hospitality industries. Many people could not, or chose not to, work because of health concerns or family responsibilities.

“For people who were just laid off because of COVID, will there be a stigma? I don’t really think so,” Cappelli said.

Although monthly job-finding rates plummeted for both the short- and long-term unemployed during the early part of the pandemic, the rate for the long-term jobless has since rebounded to roughly the same level as before the pandemic, according to government data. While that does not imply the employment-gap stigma has disappeared, it suggests it is no worse than it has been.

The tight labor market is almost certainly a factor. In October, there were 11 million job openings for 7.4 million unemployed workers.

“The fact of the matter is, there are far more jobs in the U.S. than there are people to fill them right now,” said Jeramy Kaiman, who leads professional recruitment for the western United States at the Adecco Group, a staffing agency, working primarily with accounting, finance and legal businesses. As a result, he added, employers have had to become more willing to consider applicants who had been out of work for a while.

Even when the worker shortage eases, labor experts express optimism that employers will care less about employment gaps than before, partly because the pandemic has made hiring managers more sympathetic.

Zoë Harte, the chief people officer at Upwork, a company that matches freelancers with jobs, said there had been a “societal shift” in how companies understand employment gaps.

“It’s become more and more evident that opportunity isn’t equally distributed, and so it’s important for us as people who are creating jobs and interviewing people to really look at ‘What can this person contribute?’ as opposed to ‘What does this piece of paper say they have done in the past?’” she said.

Many companies have also redoubled their efforts on diversity and are more willing to employ people with a range of backgrounds and experiences, including applicants with long employment gaps.

Employers may not be as forgiving of gaps on resumes that stretch into next year now that jobs, and vaccines, are more available, said Jesse Rothstein, a professor of public policy and economics at the University of California, Berkeley. The stigma may be more evident for lower-wage workers in industries where current job openings are especially high.

“I would expect that to whatever extent that it exists, it will come back,” Rothstein said.

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