“Everybody deserves a second likelihood”: Even when there’s a labor scarcity, staff with earlier convictions face employment limitations

October 11, 2021

All Joe Ellis wants now is a chance to work.

For years removed from a small crime that has turned his life upside down, he wants nothing more than to get back to work. But despite corporations across the country lamenting a lack of available labor, Ellis, a Pittsburgh resident and trained chef, was turned down for every position he applied for last year.

Ellis, 49, lost his last job in a warehouse in July 2020. Now he is looking for work in food preparation or in youth counseling, both reflect his previous professional experience, but he comes up short.

“I’ve got to a point where I’m going to give up hope,” he said.

His experience is not uncommon, even in today’s upside-down job market. Though many companies struggle to find workers – even advertising $ 15 an hour for jobs that typically pay less – Pittsburgh area residents and their attorneys say chances don’t always get people who time have spent in the judicial system.

It’s an incongruence that pokes holes in a shared narrative about labor shortages: that workers are unwilling or unmotivated to return to work during the pandemic. And it shows how stigma and other barriers can prevent people with a criminal record from finding work, even when employers are struggling to fill positions.

“There’s still a lot to be done … so they can really see this untapped talent and workforce,” said Abby Wolensky, director of the McKeesport-based Employment Institute at Auberle. “It was just always a challenge.”

Since the economy reopened this spring, Kurtis Mennitti, a Pittsburgh-based labor reintegration case manager, has not noticed a surge in companies hiring workers with criminal records.

Wolensky and Katrina Kadisevskis from the regional personnel development agency Partner4Work did not either.

People with a criminal record face unique barriers to re-entering the workforce, including lack of education, food or housing insecurity, and employer bias. These barriers can lead to an unemployment rate five times higher than that of the general population, according to a study by the Prison Policy Initiative.

Nearly 3 million Pennsylvanians have some sort of criminal record, which means that a large proportion of the workforce faces obstacles for even minor offenses.

Mennitti, Kadisevskis, and Wolensky all work to remove these barriers while connecting people who have worked in the justice system with training, resources, and potential employers. Agencies like yours work directly with companies to match them with qualified candidates they would otherwise be overlooked or fired.

Mennitti, a job developer and case manager for Pittsburgh Community Services, Inc. [PCSI], said he had made little headway in convincing employers to hire people with criminal records. His clients “want to prove that, ‘Hey, you know this was a mistake I’ve made,'” he said. “They are ready to move on, but they just don’t get this opportunity.”

Wolensky has seen progress in the health sector recently, but since the labor shortage began, the attitudes of employers across the economy have not changed much.

When individuals who have been in the judicial system have pledged to find work and leave their past behind, they still encounter policies that limit their employment opportunities or employers who struggle to overlook their records.

“Involvement of the judicial system, whether it’s an arrest or a conviction on your file, can really have an impact on your career, education and social networks,” said Kadisevskis. “That really turns you back in a competitive workforce.”

In Pennsylvania, companies cannot refuse applicants on the basis of their criminal record unless it affects their “employability” in the position, and must notify applicants in writing if they are refused on the basis of their record. However, this can be difficult to enforce, especially when employers make decisions without giving a reason.

Ellis knows the experience. He applied for jobs, was invited to an interview and was then transparent about his previous convictions to his interlocutor. He received a call a few days later telling him he was not what the employer was looking for.

This is where social services and HR development agencies can make a difference. They connect people who have been in the justice system to training and education programs, help them clear some criminal records, and teach them how to present themselves to appeal to employers.

But if companies are so desperate for workers, why aren’t workers with criminal records more fortunate?

Stigma aside, some workers face systemic barriers such as housing, transportation, or mental health problems that follow many people who leave the judicial system.

Kristen Broady, a Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program scholar and professor of finance economics at Dillard University, noted that companies may also be reluctant to change long-term practices to make hiring easier when they can instead wait and see the labor shortage.

“If your policy and your hiring process and your background check process and all that – everything you’ve done at your company – say we don’t hire people with a criminal record, it takes time to change that,” Broady said.

Chris Briem, regional economist at the University of Pittsburgh, pointed out that local businesses that have already learned to work with fewer workers have a particularly strong reason to wait out the shortage: the returning student body.

Kadisevskis noted that some of the fastest growing industries – construction, logistics, and transportation – traditionally welcome people who have been in the justice system, although some may require specialized training.

Most of the jobs available, however, are overall in healthcare, banking, hospitality and retail, where the picture is more mixed.

Retail and hospitality have some of the lowest barriers to entry, Kadisevskis said. They also have some of the lowest wages.

“We’re really trying to break cycles of socio-economic hardship and poverty that we often see in the communities we serve,” Wolensky said. She found that Auberle is focused on getting people into positions that pay more than $ 15 an hour and offering opportunities for advancement. “We really focus on positions where these people have the opportunity to reach that corporate ladder.”

Mennitti and Wolensky stressed that having access to basic resources when leaving the justice system is crucial for people – and empathy from employers. Even a skilled and dedicated worker will struggle to find a job if they do not have access to food, shelter, reliable transportation, or are struggling with mental health and trauma.

“The biggest change that needs to happen is really teaching employers and companies the trauma of being involved in the criminal justice system,” Wolensky said.

While obstacles can seem daunting to those with a criminal record in any type of job market, there is cause for hope.

Eric Edmondson, 31, of Stowe Township has been the crew leader for a traffic control company for six months. As a customer of PSCI, he has not noticed a lack of jobs in his area so far. But he knows that others who have left the justice system face greater hurdles when re-entering the world of work in the Pittsburgh area.

“It just depends on the person doing the interview and the person sitting in the interview,” Edmondson said.

Workers advocates described the increased openness of some companies in the Pittsburgh area to hiring people who worked in the justice system. And a law signed by Governor Tom Wolf last summer eased the criminal restrictions on 255 types of professional licenses in Pennsylvania.

In 2018, the passage of the Clean Slate Act enabled automated sealing of records of certain criminal offenses, and in January the Statehouse passed another bill eliminating the need to pay court fees for individuals before records could be sealed.

Although labor shortages may not have removed existing barriers to re-entry, it has forced companies to offer better wages and benefits, Wolensky said.

And some companies are actively recruiting people who have been in the justice system.

“We have always opened our doors to people with life problems,” said Kamahlai Stewart, co-owner of Munhall-based House of Soul Catering. Stewart’s small business hired several workers who were on probation.

Stewart is looking for new employees and has posted an invitation on Facebook for returnees to apply. She sees it as a collective endeavor that the Pittsburgh economy should commit to – to keep people out of the justice system, companies must give them the opportunity to work.

“It’s like you’re charging them because now they’re stuck, they can’t take care of their family,” she said. “Everyone changes. Everyone deserves a second chance.”

Wherever they encounter roadblocks, people who have been in the justice system can also try to create their own opportunities.

That’s what Ellis does. Between his applications, he worked towards the long-standing dream of founding his own small business: initially a food truck, with the aim of opening a shop one day that he and his children could run together.

He imagines a diner with 15 to 20 seats. Your own family restaurant.

Mennitti and PCSI help him with this, but also with clearing his record.

“I’m so looking forward to it. I have a business plan in place,” said Ellis. “You know, it will happen one day.”

Chris Hippensteel is a Syracuse-based freelance writer and a former PublicSource intern. He can be reached at chrishipp15@gmail.com.

This story has been verified by Elizabeth Prall.

This article was produced by PublicSource.org, a non-profit news organization for the Pittsburgh area. PublicSource tells stories for a better Pittsburgh. Sign up for their free email newsletters at publicsource.org/newsletters.

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