Ex-prisoners find silver liner in dark cloud of pandemic | Business



In the 25 years that US Rubber Recycling in Colton, Calif., Has crushed old tires to create new products, its sales have never swelled as quickly as during the COVID-19 pandemic.

As countless fitness centers closed and millions began exercising at home, the online demand for the company’s rubber mats and personal gym floors grew. soared.

But the company had a problem: finding enough workers to fill all the new orders.

This is where US Rubber’s long practice of hiring former criminals paid off, as people like Thomas Urioste entered the scene.

In March, the 50-year-old Wrightwood, Calif., Man was released from federal prison after serving nearly 10 years. He lived in a halfway house and, like many former inmates, was struggling to make a fresh start.

So when he heard that US Rubber was recruiting, he hurried to apply. And instead of being rejected as those with criminal records often are, he was hired almost on the spot.

Six months later, with his salary increased to $ 17 an hour, Urioste finds it hard to believe how far he has come. “They took a chance on me, gave me responsibilities quite quickly. They let me run this machine ($ 200,000), ”he said last week. “It’s pretty good because they trusted me.”

Across the country, as the economy soars and employers struggle to find enough workers, former prisoners like Urioste are finding a silver lining in the dark cloud of the pandemic.

This summer, American employers reported an unprecedented 10.9 million job postings. This amounted to more than one job for every unemployed person in the country.

In response, a growing number of companies are starting to tap into a huge, largely ignored labor pool: the roughly 20 million Americans, mostly men and many unemployed, who have been convicted of felony.

A tiny fraction of companies, including US Rubber Recycling, have long made a point of hiring ex-convicts. And in recent years, California and a dozen other states have sought to remove some of the discrimination against these applicants by prohibiting employers from directly interviewing applicants on criminal records.

But the laws have proven to be fairly easy to circumvent. Employers now frequently perform criminal background checks and gap checks on applicants. Once the problems come to light, the door closes.

“Of all the people facing challenges in the workforce, those with cases are the bottom line,” said Shawn Bushway, Albany, NY-based economist and criminologist at Rand Corp.

Things tend to get a little easier during times of really low unemployment. What is different this time is that the country’s unemployment rate is not near the bottom; it was 5.2 percent in August.

And yet, today’s unusually severe labor shortages, reflecting both short and long term strengths, appear to open up opportunities for ex-offenders. Some analysts believe this could prove to be more durable than in the past.

“Are we in a world where employers really have to start doing things differently? Harry Holzer, a professor of public policy at Georgetown University, asked, noting that companies were already grappling with declining workforce growth, including aging baby boomers.

“Maybe, maybe there is a win-win potential – good for these guys and their families and good for employers and the economy.”

Researchers have found that with each consecutive year that formerly incarcerated people remain free without committing another crime, the likelihood of them resuming criminal activity decreases. And after five to ten years, that person is no more likely to commit an offense than someone without a criminal record. Holzer thinks employers are often too fearful.

More and more companies are coming to the conclusion that they cannot afford such fears.

Harley Blakeman, managing director of Honest Jobs, an Ohio-based company that connects employers with people with criminal records, said that in the past few months, seven Fortune 500 companies have signed up as partners, including manufacturer Owens Corning, packaging giant Ball Corp. and the distribution company Arrow Electronics.

Blakeman said a key challenge is revamping how background checks can disqualify convicted persons regardless of job.

At Honest Jobs, Blakeman said he hired seven people this year, most with criminal records, including a woman who applied for an executive assistant position requiring financial management. But his past included two fraud charges, he said, so he was offered work with job applicants instead.

“I told him I can’t give you this particular job because it’s too risky.” It is good business sense. But what happens is the person accused of fraud applies for a job in the warehouse and gets kicked out. It doesn’t make sense, ”Blakeman said.

He founded Honest Jobs in late 2018 after his own difficulties finding work while on parole after serving 14 months in a state prison in Georgia.

As the economy pushes more and more companies, especially large ones, to view workers with conviction, there are compensating forces that are holding back such hiring.

Many ex-offenders, like others on the fringes of the workforce, have little education and few skills. And after years in which violent crime has declined, 2020 has seen an increase in violence, led by killings and assaults.

“With [violent] crime rates are going up, I think there will be places where it will be more difficult to try to reintegrate ex-offenders. The picture gets a little messier, ”said Nicholas Eberstadt, political economy researcher at the American Enterprise Institute and author of“ Men without Work ”.

Already those on parole or probation after incarceration, who number more than 4 million, face all kinds of employment and occupation restrictions. People with a criminal history cannot obtain licenses for certain medical professions and barber and esthetician services, for example, and convictions can reduce driver’s licenses for trucking and delivery jobs.

Melvin Price Jr., 41, of Long Beach, Calif., Was paroled last September after serving 16 years in federal prison. As part of his release, he said he could not work or “assemble” within 300 feet of a dispensary due to a previous criminal offense. And he has a 10 p.m. curfew, which means he couldn’t apply for night or graveyard jobs in warehouses and other places that were hiring.

In November, Price found work at Chrysalis, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit that helps the homeless and entrenched unemployed. And last week, thanks to Chrysalis, Price landed a job as a landscaper for Caltrans. He will earn around $ 3,000 per month.

“I promised that if I ever had another chance I would make the most of it,” said Price, whose early life degenerated after his mother’s murder in 1992.

While Chrysalis has seen employer demands almost tripling this year, there is no cover for the challenges.

At US Rubber Recycling, where about half of the company’s 65 employees are former criminals, chief executive Jeff Baldassari says the turnover rate for convicted people is about 25% higher than for others without a criminal record.

“They stack up very well when it comes to skills,” he said. “The gap is in the attrition rate. The challenge they have with emotional stability in their life is critical.

Baldassari, for his part, tries to use the eight hours that these employees work for him to provide a lot of training, teamwork and to avoid what he called “fishbowl syndrome” in which some workers feel watched and judged because of their records.

The company works closely with halfway house staff and has hired a psychiatric rehabilitation counselor.

Baldassari says his hiring practices have been good for his business, especially now that the competition for the workforce is stiff, and he says workers’ stories say a lot about what productive work can mean for them. change their life.

Carlos Arceo, 39, was hired just over two years ago after 10 years in prison in Arizona. He has since been promoted four times. When the pandemic-induced boom arrived, Arceo became the supervisor of a new second shift.

He says he still meets with the company adviser on a weekly or bi-weekly basis, but today it’s less about himself and more about managing his subordinates.

“A lot of the employees are fresh out of jail, just like me,” he said, adding with a laugh that in the company it’s not just used tires that are being salvaged and finding new use. “We are also giving people a second chance. “

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