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Help wanted. But only if you have a job.

Help wanted with a twist: Some firms won't even consider hiring someone who doesn't already have a job. But unemployed can better their job prospects.

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There are two reasons for the pattern, Mr. Burtless says. The most qualified workers tend to get snapped up quickly. Also, employers may view long-term unemployment as a sign of a poor work ethic.

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The practice is especially detrimental when jobs are scarce. In December 2007, when the Great Recession began, there were two job seekers for every opening, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This year, the ratio is nearly 5 to 1.

Discriminating based on employment status could be particularly harmful for certain groups, such as African-Americans and Hispanics, who are overrepresented among the unemployed. Older Americans are disproportionately affected, too, since they're also overrepresented among the long-term unemployed, says Heidi Shierholz, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal research group in Washington.

The unemployed can better their prospects by volunteering in community or church programs, says Jesse Downs, assistant director in Louisiana State University's career services department in Baton Rouge. Chesney-Offutt, for her part, has gone back to school and broadened her job search to include work in customer service and education.

One Framingham, Mass., company offers another option: If the unemployed donate 10 hours a week to the company, it will allow them to state on their résumé that they're currently employed at the company. "As you know its [sic] always easier to find a job when your résumé says you are currently employed," reads the Craigslist post from the company, which has chosen to stay anonymous.

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