While employers have indicated they are more willing to hire workers with criminal records in a tight labor market, job seekers say they face a tangle of barriers to getting work.
For nearly three years, Tonya Jones went on one job interview after another, only to be passed over for positions and have offers rescinded when background checks revealed a misdemeanor food stamp fraud conviction on her record.
She was removed as a driver for Lyft when the company’s background check turned up the charge, and despite her years of experience working in finance and plentiful available job openings, her main source of income until recently was delivering food for DoorDash in the Cleveland area.
“When I would try to apply for jobs that kept popping up, it was just like slamming the door in my face,” said Jones, who denies she broke the law and is fighting to remove the conviction from her record. “With that charge, nobody would give me a chance. I was just really, really, really in a dark place. It was just so emotionally draining.”
In an economy with historically low unemployment and millions of open jobs, it remains a tale of two job markets for many with criminal records who continue to struggle to find employment, according to interviews with job seekers and nonprofit organizations that work with them. They say that while employers have appeared more willing to hire workers with criminal records, a tangle of obstacles remains for those workers trying to find stable employment.
“It’s the best of times and the worst of times,” said Christopher Watler, the executive vice president of the Center for Employment Opportunities, a nonprofit organization that provides jobs and training to people who have been incarcerated. “It’s the best of times in that companies now talk openly about second-chance hiring; we have more examples of how employers can be successful hiring talent with past convictions. At the same time, we have huge barriers that remain. We have to address those barriers. It’s not the motivation of people wanting to work. Folks want to work.”
Employers want to hire, but obstacles remain
Groups that work with formerly incarcerated job seekers said employers’ interest has increased as the job market has tightened. With 650,000 people being released from state and federal prisons every year and studies showing the unemployment rate of those formerly incarcerated at around 30%, the group of workers remains an untapped source of prospective labor to fill some of the 9 million job openings employers reported in August.
“The threshold has been lowered to a certain extent 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, the vice president of programs and research for the Fortune Society, which works with formerly incarcerated job seekers in the New York area. “But that’s because of the shift in the labor force. 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 collides with other barriers, like lack of training or job placement support and regulations preventing them from working in a variety of professions. Then there are struggles to adjust to life after incarceration, like meeting parole requirements, finding affordable housing and getting treatment for mental health conditions.
Dion Johnson ran headfirst into some of those barriers. After he attended 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 illegal possession of a firearm, a violation that prevented him from getting clearance to work past airport security checkpoints.
“When you tell someone this is where you have to go as a punishment as a result of an act that you committed, understandable. But then you don’t provide 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’re in society and they’re going to look for work, but they can’t find anything because no one will hire them, not even as a lower-level janitor.”
In New York, like three dozen other states, it is illegal for employers to ask prospective employees about their criminal histories in the job application process. But once employers have made candidates conditional offers, they are allowed to run criminal background checks and can rescind the offers under certain circumstances based on the findings.