Among the millions of open jobs, finding work remains a struggle with a criminal record

For nearly three years, Tonya Jones went on one job interview after another, only to be passed over for positions and offers rescinded when background checks revealed a food stamp fraud conviction on her record.

She was dropped as a driver for Lyft when the company’s background check turned up allegations, and despite her years of experience working in finance and numerous job openings available, her main source of income until recently was delivering food to DoorDash in the Cleveland area.

When I tried to apply for jobs that kept coming up, it was like having a door slammed in my face, she said. Jones, who denies breaking the law and is fighting to have the conviction removed from her record. With that charge, no one would give me a chance. I was really, really, really in a dark place. It was so emotionally draining.

In an economy with historically low unemployment and millions of open jobs, it remains a tale of two labor markets for many people with criminal records who continue to struggle to find work, according to interviews with job seekers and nonprofits that work with them. They say that while employers have become more willing to hire workers with criminal records, a number of obstacles remain for those workers trying to find steady work.

It’s the best of times and the worst of times, said Christopher Watler, executive vice president of the Center for Employment Opportunities, a nonprofit that provides jobs and training to people who have been incarcerated. It is the best time when companies are now talking openly about second chance employment; we have more examples of how employers can succeed in hiring talent with past convictions. At the same time, we have major barriers that remain. We need to address those obstacles. It is not the motivation of people who want to work. People want to work.

Employers want to hire, but obstacles remain

Groups that work with formerly incarcerated job seekers said interest from employers has increased as the job market has tightened. with 650,000 people are released from state and federal prisons each year and studies show With the unemployment rate of ex-prisoners around 30%, the workforce remains an untapped source of future work to fill some of the 9 million jobs employers reported in August.

The threshold has been lowered somewhat by some companies because they are willing to, let’s call it, take a risk that they might not have been willing to take in the past,” said Ronald Day, vice president of programs and research. for Fortune Society, which works with formerly incarcerated job seekers in the New York area “But that’s because of the change in the workforce. They didn’t wake up one morning and say, You know what? I just want to give these individuals a chance.

Job candidates say interest from employers often comes up against other barriers, such as a lack of training or job placement support and regulations that prevent them from working in a variety of occupations. Then there are the struggles of adjusting to life after incarceration, such as meeting parole requirements, finding affordable housing, and getting treatment for mental health conditions.

Dion Johnson ran headlong into some of those barriers. After attending a job fair, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey hired him last fall to work as a janitor at LaGuardia Airport in New York. But after a month on the job, he was fired when a background check came back showing he had served six years in prison for unlawful possession of a firearm, a violation that prevented him from obtaining a permit to work near airport security checkpoints.

When you tell someone you have to go here as a punishment for an act you have committed, understandable. But then you don’t offer them any training or any tools or give them anything to help themselves on the way up, said Johnson, 48, who lives in New York. Now they are in society and they will look for work, but they can’t find anything because no one will hire them, not even as a low-level doorman.

In New York, like three dozen other states, it is illegal for employers to ask potential employees about their criminal histories in the job application process. But after employers have made candidates conditional offers, they are allowed to conduct criminal background checks and can rescind offers in certain circumstances based on the findings.

‘They say no’

The Port Authority, which operates LaGuardia, began a program in 2020 focused on hiring workers with criminal backgrounds and has since placed 121 candidates in airport jobs such as taxi dispatchers, traffic attendants, customer service and food service. But federal regulations require security clearances for access to areas past Transportation Security Administration checkpoints, which could prevent some candidates, like Johnson, from getting those jobs.

The challenges are especially acute for those with drug and violent crimes. Researchers at the University of California, Riverside, found that about 75% of hiring managers said they were unwilling to seriously consider applicants convicted of drug, property or violent crimes in a 2021 survey.

Ella, who asked that her last name not be used, said she has faced a series of rejections since she was released from prison in May after serving two years for attempted murder. At one point, she was offered a job with the US Postal Service, but it was canceled after two months when her background check was completed.

I felt hopeless, desperate. You feel like you’re just back to square one, and it just takes a lot of faith and your support system from your family and friends to help you out and pull you out of that bad funk, she said. You’re going to get a whole list of all these jobs that they’re hiring because they all need help and they’re going to waive background checks and everything like that. Then when you go through the process, they tell you no.

The Postal Service said in a statement that it conducts background checks on all new applicants after conditional offers are made and that criminal convictions are not automatic grounds for rejection. The decision to retain an applicant is based on the nature of the offense, the length of time since the offense and how it relates to job duties, the statement said.

Before her sentencing, Ella, who majored in mortuary science, was working towards becoming a funeral director. But she abandoned her plans to get a funeral director’s license after being told she would face a suspended period and have to pay a fine because of her conviction.

In Pennsylvania, where she lives, the state board eased its policy on issuing licenses to those with criminal convictions in 2020, but it can still deny a license if it determines that a violation would pose a risk to the health and safety of customers or the public. .

A number of states restrict the licensing of people of faith in a variety of professions from cosmetology to social work, which can create barriers even when employers are willing to hire them.

Texas can deny professional licenses for occupations such as electrician, tow truck operator and air conditioning and refrigeration contractor depending on convictions In Arizona, convicted felons cannot obtain real estate licenses while on probation, which can last for years.

You have people who have been barbers inside corrections for years, and then they come out and try to get a barber license and they get denied, Day said. This is the way of life of this person; this is how they make money legally and what that person has been doing for 30 years.

Roy Ballard said he received no training while in prison for 16 years in California or help with his resume or job search skills before his release. When he was released in March 2022, he said, he was dropped off at a transit station with some money on a debit card, no identification other than his prison ID and no housing assistance.

There was nothing, no coupons, no help, no help, no resource list, nothing, said Ballard, 64, who worked in senior management for a food manufacturing company before his incarceration. One of the parole agents told me that he tells the guys who come into my county, you’re fed.

Ballard has been able to find some temporary work doing highway work and with the Center for Employment Opportunities working with others who had been incarcerated. He is working on his college degree and continues to look for full-time work.

He said a range of obstacles prevent people in positions similar to his from finding steady work, from employers not wanting to hire them to personal struggles re-entering society.

There are so many factors in all of this. Housing is huge, your previous training, your mental health, any addictions that people still suffer with, Ballard said. I’ve met others who were attached to a job when they came out and within a week or two were fired. They are simply thrown back.

Signs of progress

Advocates say things are starting to change for the better. In Michigan, the Department of Corrections can’t keep up with the number of requests it receives from employers for inmates to train through the vocational village program, said Kyle Kaminski, who oversees education and re-entry efforts.

“Honestly, we have far more employer requests than we have candidates at this point,” Kaminski said.

The comprehensive full-day training program, which lasts between nine and 12 months, prepares about 400 inmates at a time for a variety of occupations after they are released and connects them with employers.

When we started the first village, we had to call the employers and try to get them to come and see it, because they just weren’t very interested. We had to pull on the heartstrings, Kaminski said. Now the pendulum is completely on the other side. We are getting calls from many employers every week saying: We need people with the following skill set. We need people returning to the following communities. So do you have people?

Demand from employers has helped improve the employment rate for program graduates, which went from 59% who were employed upon their release in 2019 to 71% last year.

After losing her job at the airport, Johnson began working for the Center for Employment Opportunities and went through its job training program. After months of applying to at least five jobs a week, he was offered a job this month at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital making $21 an hour helping people leaving prison get the services they need.

Jones, after losing at least 10 job prospects, was recently able to land a job at a large financial firm in the Cleveland area making $24 an hour, putting him back on the career path in which it was before her sentencing.

When HR did my background check, she didn’t even care. She told me, Oh, no, we look for more serious things than that, said Jones, who asked that her employer not be identified. They don’t discriminate against you. They were ready to give me a shot.”

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