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Employment Gaps: The Struggle of Re-Entering the Workforce

A group of people sitting around a table with a woman in a wheelchair.

​The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and the U.S. Department of Labor's Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs recently hosted a virtual roundtable to discuss challenges workers face when re-entering the workforce after periods of unemployment.

The session, "Untapped Potential: Reimagining Equity for Workers with Gaps in Employment History," was the second installment of the federal government's Hiring Initiative to Reimagine Equity (HIRE) program.

"[We have] begun engaging a broad cross section of stakeholders to examine policies and practices, so that we can reimagine equity," said EEOC Chair Charlotte Burrows. "We want to identify strategies to remove unnecessary barriers to recruitment and hiring as well as promote effective job-related practices to expand opportunities to a diverse workforce."

Speakers outlined the barriers that caregivers, older workers, people with long-term disabilities and formerly incarcerated individuals face when re-entering the workforce. The session also offered best practices to attract this untapped talent.

Discrimination During Pregnancy

Elizabeth Gedmark, vice president of nonprofit A Better Balance in New York City, said pregnant women often have their hours cut, lose their jobs or are unable to find employment until a few months after giving birth.

"Workers are pushed off the job when they are pregnant and need a modest accommodation to stay healthy—something as simple as light duty or to avoid lifting heavy patients," Gedmark said. "This can often be the start of a downward spiral of financial insecurity."

Gedmark explained that many women re-entering the job market are asked to explain their gap in employment, which can invite discrimination. She's encountered pregnant women who have been fired from multiple jobs during a single pregnancy due to discriminatory practices.

"Workers who have gaps on their resumes due to caregiving or pregnancy should not face discrimination when looking for a new job, especially as the pandemic has forced family members to care for loved ones in the face of unprecedented illness and school closures," Gedmark said.

Older Workers

Heather Tinsley-Fix, a senior advisor with AARP, spoke about how many older workers have struggled to secure employment during the COVID-19 pandemic. And, in many instances, those who do land a job do not regain the salaries that they had prior to that separation.

"It takes them about twice as long to get back into the workforce than it does for younger workers to do so," Tinsley-Fix said.

She also said many older workers are victims of unconscious bias. In 2021, AARP released research revealing that 78 percent of workers over age 40 had either seen or experienced age discrimination at work.

"That's the highest rate we've seen since we started tracking this metric," Tinsley-Fix said. "There's unconscious ageism in our culture that is pervasive, and it's something that is a barrier for older workers to getting back to the workforce."

People with Mental Illness

People with long-term, hidden disabilities such as mental illness also face discrimination, said attorney Eve Hill with Brown, Goldstein and Levy in Baltimore.

Hill said many applicants with mental health problems seek help for their conditions, which may contribute to employment gaps. When re-entering the job market, many of these workers reveal their disabilities when asked about their employment gap, resulting in employers rejecting them.

"This creates what I call the 'waterfall of prejudice,' " Hill explained. "[Companies] continue to have tremendous prejudice and fear about people with mental health conditions. It's a completely unjustified fear that people with disabilities, particularly those who have taken some time off from work, will be unreliable employees again."

'Better Than Our Worst Mistake'

Teresa Hodge is the executive director of Mission: Launch, a nonprofit in Washington, D.C., that supports formerly incarcerated individuals. She said some people released from prison cannot find jobs for many years due to preconceived notions about workers with prior convictions.

"All of us are better than our worst mistake," she said. "And none of us want to ever be judged by that mistake every time we go to apply for opportunity."

Some states prohibit companies from asking on employment applications about previous criminal arrests or convictions to prevent employers from discriminating against people with prior convictions.

But employers can still use background checks to find out that a person has an arrest or conviction record, Hodge said.

"Nine out of 10 employers want a criminal-background check, and the criminal-background check provides us with stale data," she said. "Even if they had 10 to 20 years of employment history, they're having to answer questions about that criminal history from 10 to 20 years ago."

Rethinking Assumptions

The speakers also offered ways to foster a healthy environment for underrepresented groups, including those with employment gaps:

  • Be open to inclusivity.
  • Review the hiring process to ensure no barriers to employment exist.
  • Offer workplace flexibility, including remote options.
  • Target outreach to underrepresented communities.
  • Provide accommodations during the interview process as needed.
  • Ask employees within company for referrals.

Employers can also show a willingness to hire people with employment gaps through their marketing efforts. For example, companies can include photos of older workers on their website or enlist an employee with mental illness to draft a first-person blog about their experiences working at the organization.

Hiring applicants from these populations can strengthen a company's diversity, equity and inclusion outlook and support recruitment and retention efforts, Hill explained.

"Almost everything employers 'know' about applicants with an employment history gap is wrong," she said. "It's time to rethink the assumptions we still carry from the work world of the past, so we can attract the best talent in today's world."


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