By Zeeshan Aleem and Jillian Hernandez
Demand for workers with criminal justice involvement and a history of incarceration appears to be rising in several regions across the country over the past few years, according to interviews with eight job placement professionals in cities spanning the nation.
All eight interviewees reported consistent demand for their clients, but responses varied on the question of whether or not they perceived an improvement in job prospects for their clients in recent years.
Three interviewees — in New Haven, Minneapolis, and Longmont, Colorado— described demand as flat over the past few years.
Five interviewees — in Tulsa, Portland, Charlotte, Albuquerque and Columbus, Mississippi — reported improvements in job market prospects for their clients over the past few years.
Four interviewees — in New Haven, Tulsa, Portland, and Columbus — reported a rise in average wages for their clients. Other interviewees either lacked reliable information on wages or described them as flat or nearly flat.
When asked to describe what accounted for changes in job markets, interviewees pointed to several factors:
- reduction in the unemployment rate and labor shortages;
- shifting employer attitudes toward job-seekers who were formerly incarcerated caused by criminal justice reforms, criminal justice movements, investment in more robust reentry programs, and economic necessity;
- increases in the local minimum wage;
- variations in their own staff capacity and organizational relationships with employers.
The most common industries reported as employing justice-involved individuals include: manufacturing, warehouse work, maintenance, construction, welding, food service, driving, hospitality, landscaping, and peer support services.
A majority of interviewees reported optimistic outlooks on the job market, due to the pace of the economy and a trend toward open-mindedness to employing formerly incarcerated workers.
Below are select excerpted questions and answers from the conducted interviews. Responses have been edited for clarity, brevity, and context.
JOB MARKET TRENDS
Has the job market improved, worsened, or remained the same for your clients?
I don’t think it’s improved in New Haven. For this population, I don’t see much of a difference. I see a lot of the same stories from employers, and I don’t see a huge uptick in people getting jobs…I’d like to say very slowly things are getting a little bit better. I hope so…it’s a slow process, and there’s still a lot of systemic factors that play into employee ability than just how the economy is doing…Even though the economy may have changed, and you’ll see a downtick in unemployment, New Haven’s residents still aren’t working, and these guys aren’t getting as many opportunities as you might think.
- Alden Woodcock, Deputy Director of Emerge CT, New Haven, Connecticut, interviewed September 10, 2019.
I actually think it’s getting better here. We have been able to get a lot of our participants employed, and with good jobs. They just can’t keep them. And that’s the problem we’re running into right now. I mean, we still have some struggles, there are some companies that aren’t willing to work with us, but overall we’ve had some pretty good success at getting them placed in jobs…Unfortunately, there’s a lot of employers that we talk to where we hear that they’ll work with people with backgrounds — and we hear, “It’s on a case-by-case basis.” And so that’s really our only deterrent, when they say that. It’s kind of like a slap…because we have a lot of violent offenders that we have to help get placed, and it’s harder to get them placed, and when people say, “Case-by-case basis,” it most likely means they’re not going to work with them.
- Candice Thomas, Employment Specialist at the Community Service Council, Tulsa, Oklahoma, interviewed October 3, 2019.
It’s improved. In the past couple of years, it has. It really has. It was worse in the beginning [of the organization’s work in 2007] because [of] the stigma about people that were incarcerated.…Now I have employers that call me and say, “Hey do you have anybody in your program that is looking for a job? I have a position available.” So it’s becoming like that over the past few years where I’m getting individuals that call me, and then I need participants. So it’s changing.
- Sharon Jones, Executive Director of Paroled 2 Pride, Columbus, Mississippi, interviewed November 8, 2019.
It’s way, way better. Eleven years ago, it was really difficult [for this population] to get a job because [employers] had policies that were very restrictive. That’s not happening anymore. With the job market and the inability to hire, all of a sudden…[criminal] backgrounds [are] not a problem…If we have people that want to work, they’re getting jobs.
- Employee at a Portland, Oregon-based organization that provides job placement services for formerly incarcerated people, interviewed November 15, 2019.
I believe it’s stayed the same. We have not seen, despite a bunch of coverage around “felon-friendly companies,” we have not seen that. If I can be frank, we have not seen it based on the population that we serve. What I mean by that is, most organizations, my anecdotal experience with them in five and a half years has been… “Felony-friendly” is if you are white, late 40’s, and your felony was a DUI, driving under the influence. Typically, we receive a different reaction from these companies that say they are felony-friendly when our men come in who are late 20’s, early 30’s, African-American. Their felony might be a violent crime or possession of a controlled substance. We get a different response to them….We have not seen a huge uptick. We certainly field many more calls, I will say that…but it has not turned into higher wages.
- Thomas Adams, President & CEO, Better Futures, Minneapolis, Minnesota, interviewed November 18, 2019.
I do think it’s improving…We right now have a relationship with a restaurant chain that would not hire people with records. They’ve decided they have to do that now. We are in a partnership with them, and they’ve made some allowances for starting salary…In the 2019 fiscal year, we had 72% of our clients who completed our employment readiness program get employed…in ’07 and ’08, we [had] 47%, but then we [went] down to 28% in fiscal year 2009, 38% in FY10 and FY11, 39% in FY12, 41% in FY13, 53% in FY14. Now you can really see, because we’re in the 70s, that it’s gotten better. It was about two months from graduating our program before people got employed in 2014…Right now, they can get a job within two weeks.
- Myra Clark, Executive Director of the Center for Community Transitions, Charlotte, North Carolina, interviewed November 19, 2019.
It’s a better time than ever to find work, I think, partly because of the economy right now. I think if the economy takes a turn, it’ll be a lot more difficult. Right now, I think it’s gotten somewhat better. It’s gotten easier in the three years we’ve been in service, because we know more about who’s hiring and how to get a job, so it’s easier to place people with jobs. We still see the frustration of being denied, looking around. It’s still more difficult than your average person reentering the workforce who doesn’t have a criminal history. There’s still extra barriers. But right now is a good time to be looking for a job.
- Barry Ore, Program Director and Peer Support Worker, Best Chance, Albuquerque, New Mexico, interviewed November 19, 2019.
The minimum wage job environment is pretty easy. I mean, our folks are getting employed in two to four weeks. But it’s the question of whether they can earn a wage that allows them to be self-sufficient and pay the high rents here, that’s the problem.
- Deborah Simmons, Founder and Board Member, the Reentry Initiative, Longmont, Colorado, interviewed November 20, 2019.
What factors have contributed to job placement changes, if any?
I don’t know if employers are more forgiving now. Maybe that’s the case, but I think it, it really depends on who you’re talking to.
- Alden Woodcock (New Haven, CT)
People are listening, they’re opening up their minds. They’re wanting people who can do the job, and they look at somebody’s qualifications versus their background… It’s just a matter of employers being open-minded and just wanting the work done, versus not really caring about what the background is. And that’s what made a difference for us…Because it’s still hard these days to get a job, so, its just getting a little bit easier, but you have to have connections, you have to know the people who are willing to work with you…I think [the job market] plays a big factor as well. The fact that [employers are] needing people, and they need to fill those spots now, so I think that contributes as well. And times when they’re not needing people as bad, it’s definitely a little bit harder to get those people in the door.
- Candice Thomas (Tulsa, OK)
Businesses we’ve worked with in the past who had these restrictive policies [on hiring people with criminal records] have all of a sudden dropped them like hot bricks, because of course, they’re having a hard time hiring…I would say, after the bailout of the banks and the economy started to get back on track again…we saw significant changes. Employers hiring, not being so consumed with someone with a background, looking more at skills…It was the transition from Bush to Obama, the bailout of the car industry, the banks, everything getting back on their feet. We saw significant changes around that. In 2008, when it [was] really bad, we saw more of a “skill up” approach…which was, “Get into college, get your skills. There’s no jobs out here. Get yourself ready for when they get back.” As we moved towards ’10, ’11, it was starting to pick up, and the economy was turning around. You could sort of feel that things were moving…Since then it’s turned around 100%. You’ve got this period of time when the economy’s changing, and employer needs are changing. I think, also, Portland’s a very progressive thinking [place]…I think employers just think about it differently here. We don’t get people obsessing and drilling down on what someone’s background was.
- Employee at Portland-based organization
Labor shortage, for the most part [is driving the increase in phone calls from new employers that have not turned into new contracts yet]…If you look at many of the industries, there are huge labor shortages. In particular, industries that are blue-collar, labor-intensive occupations, they are having a hard time attracting talent even though they pay well…[but] I think [there are two factors] for me on why [job placement is] static, even though there is a national movement to talk about working with individuals with corrections. One, the industries are hurting, but they’re not hurting enough. They see it coming on the horizon, but they’re not there yet. Part of it, when I say coming on the horizon… There will become a time when they cannot fulfill their obligations, they will not be able to meet their customer demands, and I think there will be an increased effort to be a little bit more flexible. I also firmly believe, based on our interactions with some local businesses here, there’s still a huge racial challenge and barrier to our men being employed.
- Thomas Adams (Minneapolis, MN)
I know when unemployment is really high, our people can’t find a job…I think, for the most part, it has to do with the unemployment rate. The higher it is, people with lots of skills are being put into positions where their skills aren’t being utilized, they’re underemployed, and…a lot of people won’t do the jobs that our clients will do…For our clients, I think [our] program’s gotten better, and we’re addressing more barrier issues that could interrupt or keep someone from being employed… I don’t want to say it’s all about unemployment, but I think a great deal of it is. I will go back and say that I think the criminal justice system, the prison system, and even the Mecklenburg County Jail… Not most jails, but the Mecklenburg County Jail are really focused on turning out better people. People with skills, and with a more positive outlook than we used to. I think that makes a difference…All of a sudden, we’ve got people down here talking about the hidden workforce, and all kinds of workshops are being had. They’re trying to educate employers, “There are people you can hire, you just have to get over this criminal justice issue that you have. They can be really good workers. You’re really short-sighting yourself and your company when you look at that.”
- Myra Clark (Charlotte, NC)
I definitely think it’s mostly the economy. I’ve seen it be more difficult in the past, too. I think us and our relationships with employers is really helping the outlook for these guys to find jobs, as well. I definitely think service providers like us are helping the situation. There’s others in the community that really help out, as well as a couple others that have emerged recently. I think that helps, I really do. I think it would be a lot harder to do alone in a new community. That’s one of the factors for sure…more service providers and an economy that supports job seeking probably has more favorable conditions than you might have seen under other circumstances.
- Barry Ore (Albuquerque, NM)
[Boulder County, Colorado is] one of the fastest growing most popular areas for people to move to. The housing is not affordable housing, but houses are going up and the jobs requiring minimum wage employees seem to plentiful. I don’t know what would happen if [unemployment were the same as in] 2008 and 2009…that would have been… disastrous probably.
- Deborah Simmons (Longmont, CO)
Average Wages and Wage Growth
Five years ago, it was around $12 an hour, and that number has gone up very slightly over the past five years. This past year it was $13.25, and last year it was $13.02.
Alden Woodcock (New Haven, CT)
The average wage now is $10.64 per hour, one year ago was $9.00 an hour, and five years ago it was $9.42 an hour.
- Candice Thomas (Tulsa, OK)
Factories in Mississippi pay well, [around $14–$16] an hour. But we have some factories that just won’t hire felons, and that’s an untouched labor market…[Participants employed at Best Western through Paroled2Pride earn] above the minimum wage…50–75 cents more in 2007, and $1.25 [above minimum wage] from 2009 til now.
- Sharon Jones (Columbus, MS)
Our minimum wage here is higher than most states at $12.50. The majority of the lower income [jobs our participants work pay] between $13 and $14, and that would be on a transitional job working [in the food industry]. But then we’ve got people who are welders who have been sex offenders, violent offenders, and they’re out making $22–23 an hour…Some of the older individuals who…maybe didn’t get their GED sort of stay stuck. But even that, we’re able to get them in with material handling at $18 an hour with full benefits…Is that a living wage in Portland? Absolutely not but it’s better than $12.50 an hour.
- Employee at Portland-based organization
The challenge is the hourly wage. It’s still around $14–15 an hour, which is not living wage for the population that we serve. On average they have three children. With their certifications, they should be in the low 20s…Locally here, there are companies that are hiring certified forklift operators at about $22 an hour. Unfortunately, when we send our men there, they are being offered $14 an hour, and they are being told that if they make it past a year’s probation, they’ll get bumped up. What we know is that the probation is subjective. It does not apply to everybody, and our population… Our participants get disenchanted. They feel like they can go work at a fasts food industry and make $14 an hour, so why work shoulder-to-shoulder with somebody who’s making $10 more an hour than you are? So they don’t stay…We are hovering around $14.50 an hour. Six years ago, we were around $11. Part of that has been a raising of the minimum wage here in the Twin Cities, [which is now] $11.50 an hour, on the way to $15 by 2022. Wages [from] a year ago have been pretty static, even with the minimum wage going up 35 cents every 18 months or something like that. It may have been a quarter less, but it’s still been around $14 for the last two years.
- Thomas Adams (Minneapolis, MN)
[In 2019] the largest group was making between $10–$10.50 an hour. [Almost everyone was making between $8–$13 an hour].
-Myra Clark (Charlotte, NC)
As I said the biggest problem is not getting the job, with a couple of exceptions, the biggest problem is getting jobs with high enough pay. It’s not hard for someone to get into [the fast food industry]. We’ve got a gal right now who was a [medical professional] and had probably a six figure job prior to incarceration doing pretty sophisticated work… and she’s only getting paid $14 an hour, and she’s only been given 24 hours [a week]…She’s spent nine years of her highest earning potential locked up, so she’s going to work until she dies. She’s not going to be able to make enough and her social security hasn’t ramped up with her income.
- Deborah Simmons (Longmont, Colorado)
Recent Success Stories
More recently, there was a guy who I might think of, maybe five years ago as someone who would have a really difficult time finding a job. [He] just came to us with all the anger and frustration with the job market and unresolved trauma, very tightly wound and having a difficult time. But he was able to open up here…I think five years ago,he still would have had a really hard time finding a job. But just being a smart guy and being able to speak the industry terminology and market his skills to people — he’s had no problem finding work. He left here, found one job, and then found another job very shortly after that was a much better opportunity, and he continues to flourish, and I really think that he would have had a much harder time five years ago. So there definitely is, there definitely are examples of people that, I think, have found their way, that maybe would have had a much harder time five years ago.
- Alden Woodcock (New Haven, CT)
We have a young man who enrolled in our program straight out of prison. He had only been out of prison for a month. He did his part, he did all the required classes through our program, and then that’s when he decided to enroll in the welding training at Tulsa Technology Center. He successfully completed that welding training with an AWS certification, the OSHA and forklift, and it just so happened that the week before, I had met with a small manufacturing shop. I was able to refer him out to this manufacturing shop, and they interviewed him and hired him on the spot. And so he’s been working there for going on 5 months now. He makes roughly $12 an hour. It comes from building the relationships with the employers and gaining their trust and knowing that we’re working for them. His charges were some very serious charges that he would have not been looked at if he would have probably went out on his own.
-Candice Thomas (Tulsa, OK)
We did have one gentleman who was in a Department of Community Justice reinvestment program. We had a bill here to reduce the prison population. He had a fairly significant crime and got out. He was working with one of our workers. He had been a welder, and wanted to go in for his welding certification so he could become an inspector. He wanted to get to that higher level. We paid for that welding inspector… I think it was over $400 for him to get that licensing for him to do that. He’s making $35 an hour with full benefits now, and has not gone back, is not using, still successful, still on the job, working that through. If you look at ten years ago, that probably wouldn’t have happened for him.
- Employee at Portland-based organization
We had a guy who came out, he had been locked up for 20 years and was very bitter and angry. He came to our peer support groups and got settled in. Next thing you know, he gets a job. He had been convicted of bank robberies, and within two months of working for this place, a fast food chain, he had the key to the safe and was responsible for counting the money every day, balancing the registers and everything. It’s just remarkable to see this guy who had been convicted of bank robberies, and now he’s handling the money for this fast food chain.
- Barry Ore (Albuquerque, NM)
Zeeshan Aleem is a New York-based freelance journalist and adjunct professor at the New School who writes about politics, policy and society. His writing has been published in The Atlantic, The Nation, Esquire, The Guardian, Vice, Politico, Vox, HuffPost, The American Prospect, GEN, Pacific Standard, Mic and other publications.
Jillian Hernandez is Senior Research Counsel at Employ America. She is a former immigration attorney and member of the New York bar.