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 Mr. Baxter, who is chief executive 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.”
Mr. 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’s 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 “résumé gaps” is fading, experts say, because of labor shortages and more bosses seeming to realize that long absences from the job market shouldn’t 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.
Mr. Baxter, whose company is based in Phoenix, said he has learned from his own experience. Forced to lay off roughly 70 percent 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, the 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,” Mr. 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.
That was what Rachel Love, 35, found when she applied for a job at Qwick.
After Ms. Love was furloughed, and then laid off from her sales job at a hotel in Dallas last year, she kept hoping that her former company would hire her back. She had been unemployed for about a year when she came to terms with the idea of getting a new job and became aware of a business development position at Qwick.
Interviewers did not press her about why she had been out of work for so long. “I hope now, just with everything going on, I think people can look at the résumé and look at the time frame and maybe just infer,” said Ms. Love, who began working remotely for Qwick in June.
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.
That aligns with Burton Amos’s experience. After he was laid off from his job as a program support specialist with a federal contractor at the start of the pandemic, Mr. Amos, 60, started an online wireless accessories business and began studying for a career in information technology but was unable to land other work.
On his résumé and LinkedIn profile, he was open about his lack of full-time employment, an approach that seemed to appeal to interviewers.
“Every job did ask about ‘What am I doing right now?’” he said.“They didn’t specifically say anything specific about the pandemic.” He recently received multiple job offers and has accepted a position as a public aid eligibility assistant with the State of Illinois.
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.
Scott Bonneau, vice president of global talent attraction at the hiring site Indeed, said employment gaps are “not a part of our consideration.” His company instead tries to evaluate a candidate’s skills and capabilities. That practice began before the pandemic, as part of the company’s diversity and inclusion efforts, and it is a shift that he said he expected to see at other businesses.
“I think there is the beginnings of a movement to stop focusing on employment gaps entirely at least in certain parts of the employment world,” said Mr. Bonneau, whose responsibilities include hiring people for jobs at Indeed.
But other labor experts worry that the employment-gap stigma will return once the economy stabilizes.
Employers may not be as forgiving of gaps on résumés 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,” Mr. Rothstein said.
History also suggests that the empathy that hiring managers may feel now will not last, said Maria Heidkamp, the director of program development at the Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University.
In a study released in 2013 by the Heldrich Center, a quarter of American workers said they were directly affected through a job loss and nearly 80 percent said they knew at least someone who had lost a job in the previous four years. Those levels would seem to make hiring managers more understanding of those who had lost their jobs because the experience was so common, Ms. Heidkamp said. “But that’s not what we saw,” she said.
“The equation may play out differently” now, she added. “That said, I’m still worried.”
Ben Casselman contributed reporting.