Unemployed – the Newest Protected Classification

Buried in the rush of the holiday season, on December 11, 2013 the City of Madison, Wisconsin amended its Equal Opportunities Ordinance to include “unemployment” as a classification protected from employment discrimination.   (A similar effort failed at the Federal level a couple of years ago).

In rather circular fashion, Madison’s Ordinance defines “unemployment” as “the status of not having a job or employmnt [sic], being available for work and seeking employment.”  Section 39.03(2)(oo).

Thus, companies with operations in Madison may not refuse to hire an individual simply because the person is unemployed.  Nor can they post advertisements (or job descriptions) that list as an eligibility requirement that the applicant be currently employed.  Employers are also prohibited from discriminating against unemployed applicants in terms and conditions of employment, so presumably they could not offer lower starting pay to unemployed applicants.

The Ordinance does throw employers a small bone.  It somewhat clarifies that unemployment “does not mean, nor is it unlawful discrimination to inquire into or to consider or act upon, the facts and circumstances leading to the the [sic] status or condition of unemployment.” (Yes, there are two typos in the Ordinance’s two sentence definition of “unemployment,” supporting the notion that this change was hastily made).

Beyond the typos, however, the problems with the Ordinance are numerous.  First, the Ordinance affords the temporary status of being unemployed the same legal protections as  immutable characteristics such as race, gender, national origin, and disability.

Second, (and perhaps incredibly), the status of “unemployment” is now the 27th “protected classification” under the Ordinance, joining other narrow protected classifications like “victim of domestic abuse.”  (What employer either refuses to hire or fires someone because of that?).  In short, employers in Madison face more legal compliance land mines.

Third, and most importantly, the Ordinance creates more questions than it answers, such as:

(1) Is an applicant who has been unemployed a mere one or two days at the time she applies for a job protected from discrimination?  Or does the applicant have to be unemployed for a period of several months? (It appears there is no minimum time limit).

(2)  Is an employer now, as a practical matter, prohibited from asking on its job application whether the applicant is currently employed, or for the name of the applicant’s current employer?   These routine employment application questions may result in the disclosure of information that the applicant is actually unemployed, thus putting the employer on notice, and giving the applicant a theory in which to file a discrimination claim if not hired.

(3) Does the Ordinance allow or prohibit employers from taking into consideration that an applicant had long periods of unemployment in the past, but is currently employed?  (It would seem to allow this).

(4)  Is an applicant who is currently employed at the time of application, but then becomes unemployed while the application is pending, considered “unemployed” and protected from discrimination under the Ordinance? (It would seem the individual would be  protected).

I have posed these and other questions to the City of Madison’s Department of Civil Rights Equal Opportunities Division, but have not received answers as of yet.  Stay tuned.

Mitchell W. Quick, Attorney/Partner
Michael Best & Friedrich LLP
Suite 3300
100 E. Wisconsin Avenue
Milwaukee, Wisconsin 53202
414.225.2755 (direct)
414.277.0656 (fax)
:  @HRGeniusBar