Felons find few employment options open to them

By October 18, 2013 Community, WYSU No Comments
Henry Scott Jr. of Youngstown, who served 15 years on a felony sex charge, has worked at Comprehensive Logistics for three years. He now helps others felons find jobs. Jessica Mowchan/TheNewsOutlet.org

By RACHEL SALYER
TheNewsOutlet.org

After Symeon Bankston, 32, of Youngstown, was found guilty on two drug trafficking charges, he was headed back to prison for a third time.

Ohio law protects employers from negligent hiring suits

By RACHEL SALYER
TheNewsOutlet.org

Employers, who hire a felon can be immune from lawsuits, should that person commit a crime while working for the company.

Under Ohio Senate Bill 337, which went into effect in September 2012, people with felony or misdemeanor convictions can apply for a Certificate of Qualification for Employment. This certificate lifts collateral sanctions.

Employers, who hire felons with this certificate, would then be immune from prosecution based on negligent hiring if the employee commits a crime on the job, according to the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections.

Certificate or not, it wouldn’t make a difference to Katherine Olderman, who is a hiring manager for several McDonald’s restaurants in Northeast Ohio.

“I wouldn’t want to take the risk or put the rest of my employees in any types of risky or harmful situations,” she said. “Just because I’m not legally liable if someone messes up doesn’t mean it wouldn’t cause unnecessary trouble. It’s not like McDonald’s is hurting for applicants. Why take that risk?”

To be eligible, felons must be within a year of their release date or on parole, according to the Ohio Justice and Policy Center.

As of Sept. 10, only 11 applicants had been approved for a certificate. Sara Andrews, deputy director of the Ohio Division of Parole and Community Services, said that there are approximately 500 petitions still pending court review.

To be considered for a certificate, applicants must submit evidence that they have a “substantial need for a CQE in order to live a law-abiding life,” and that they are not an “unreasonable risk to public safety.”

They must have also completed vocational and behavioral programs through the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, and 120 hours of community service, according to the Ohio Reentry Coalition.

While Olderman understands the value of giving felons a second chance, she said her hiring practices are “purely business.”

Tom Doll, owner of Superior Staffing in Akron, isn’t sure if a certificate would change the minds of his clients, either.

“Our clients are always going to prefer someone without a record,” he said. “To them, I think, it’s just easier to not have to deal with any of it, and if they’re paying us the fee, we have to give them what they want.”

TheNewsOutlet.org is a collaborative effort among the Youngstown State University journalism program, The University of Akron and professional media outlets including, WYSU-FM Radio and The Vindicator (Youngstown), The Beacon Journal and Rubber City Radio (Akron).

“When I asked for help, they (his friends) offered me crack. The only (job) I could get was to sell drugs, drugs, drugs, ” he said during his Aug. 22 sentencing hearing in Mahoning County Court.

When an article about the sentencing appeared in The Vindicator, readers were not sympathetic. One person suggested Bankston could have gotten a job at McDonald’s.

Not, however, if he applied at one where Katherine Olderman works. She’s a hiring manager for several McDonald’s restaurants in Northeast Ohio.

“Applicants are scored by three colors: red, yellow or green,” said Olderman. “The prescreen asks, ‘Have you ever been convinced of a felony?’ and ‘Are you a registered sex offender?’ If you say, ‘no,’ to both – it’s marked green. If you say, ‘yes,’ to one – it’s marked yellow. And if you say, ‘yes’ to both – it’s marked red.

Olderman said some McDonald’s might consider candidates marked “yellow,” but it’s at the discretion of the person reviewing the applications.

“I don’t even open an application if it’s yellow,” she said.

The Rev. Willie Peterson, executive director of The Center for Community Empowerment in Youngstown, works to end hiring discrimination against felons. “We all have made a mistake,” he said. Jessica Mowchan/TheNewsOutlet.org

The Rev. Willie Peterson, executive director of The Center for Community Empowerment in Youngstown, works to end hiring discrimination against felons. “We all have made a mistake,” he said. Jessica Mowchan/TheNewsOutlet.org

 

This frustrates the Rev. Willie Peterson. As the executive director for The Center for Community Empowerment in Youngstown, he works to end discrimination against felons by hiring companies.

“Ugh – that’s my reaction,” Peterson said in response to Olderman’s hiring policies.  “We all have made a mistake. Look in the mirror. People can change.”

It is illegal to use a criminal record as an “absolute measure to prevent an individual from being hired,” according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Employers must consider three factors: the nature of the job, the nature and seriousness of the offense, and the length of time since it occurred.

Even so, anti-felon hiring policies are not uncommon in the United States. A 2010 study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington D.C. found that only 40 percent of employers would consider hiring applicants with criminal histories. The percentage drops for customer service or money-handling positions. That study estimates that up to 1.7 percent of all unemployed Americans have felony convictions.

It is not simply that individuals who commit crimes are less likely to work in the first place,” the study said. “Felony convictions or time in prison act independently to lower the employment prospects of ex-offenders.”

Peterson, 60, was convicted of a felony 35 years ago and considers himself a reformed man. That’s what motivated him to begin the NewBirth Project through CCE. The program works with felons to make them more employable and productive to society. When he feels clients are ready, he works to find them a job.

Even so, many felons aren’t called in for interviews when they mark their criminal status on their employment applications.

Mike Jones, 42, of Cleveland, learned this lesson firsthand.

“In the beginning I used to lie and say I didn’t have a felony because I was embarrassed,” Jones said. “I would get a few jobs, but if they did a background check, they would fire me for being dishonest on my application.”

Jones then began to check the “yes” box and noted that he would explain his circumstances during an interview. He received few calls from employers.

Then, he began to leave the box blank.

“I wanted to give myself a chance to get an interview, and if I could get in front of a person and have a discussion, I could sell myself to try to get the job,” Jones said.  “That’s how I got the job I have now.”

Jones declined to name his current employer.

In 2008, he started the Breaking the Cycle program, whereby he uses his experience to help other felons in Northeast Ohio find jobs.

Both Jones and Peterson support a national reform policy called, “Ban the Box.”

This initiative removes the checkbox used on job applications asking if an applicant has a felony conviction. According to the National Employment Law Project website, more than 50 cities have “banned the box,” including Cleveland, Cincinnati and Canton.

The Akron City Council unanimously passed a resolution in July to adopt the policy. The resolution applies only to applicants for jobs with the city. As of publication, applications still had the box and officials were unsure of when the policy would be implemented.

The Akron policy doesn’t apply to private businesses.

Seven states have adopted the “ban the box” policy statewide, including California, Connecticut, Colorado, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Minnesota and New Mexico. Three others – New York, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin – already had anti-discrimination laws on their books that prevented screening for convictions unless the offense relates to the position.

However, even if the box is removed, employers can ask applicants about their criminal history during an interview and can run background checks. Also, the law usually doesn’t apply to “sensitive” positions, such as working with children, according to NELP.

For Olderman, it doesn’t matter when she learns of an applicant’s criminal history. It’s likely that felons still won’t become an employee at any of the McDonald’s restaurants she manages.

“Last week, I scheduled an interview with a guy whose application was all green (no felonies),” she said. “We wanted him to be our nighttime maintenance man. My boss actually did the interview and he said (the candidate) was great and really wanted to hire him.”

Olderman received the applicant’s background check a few days later. It listed several felony convictions including rape, domestic violence, and kidnapping.

“We hire people as young as 14,” Olderman said. We can’t have people like that in our store with kids if we want to provide the safe and friendly environment that we pride ourselves on.”

Jones understands that some felons aren’t fit for certain jobs based on their crimes, but can still be suitable for other positions.

“Why can’t an ex-offender work third-shift maintenance?” he asked. “They’re not even around people.”

Also, felons don’t fare any better if they go to an employment agency.

“Typically we do not place candidates who have a felony record,” Tom Doll said, owner of Superior Staffing in Akron.  “We’re placing people at area organizations that pay us a premium to find people. They’re the ones telling us, ‘If we’re going to pay you a premium, why would you send us someone with a record when I know you have all kinds of people who don’t have a record who are qualified to do this job?”

Jones had an answer for that, too.

“At the end of the day you have to hire the person who’s best for your company,” he said, adding that hiring a felon over a non-felon might even benefit the company over time. Non-offenders look at a job as a steppingstone to the next level. A person with a felony is going to feel like that’s their only opportunity and stick around.”

Henry Scott Jr. of Youngstown, who served 15 years on a felony sex charge, has worked at Comprehensive Logistics for three years. He now helps others felons find jobs. Jessica Mowchan/TheNewsOutlet.org

Henry Scott Jr. of Youngstown, who served 15 years on a felony sex charge, has worked at Comprehensive Logistics for three years. He now helps others felons find jobs. Jessica Mowchan/TheNewsOutlet.org

Henry Scott Jr., 60, supports this claim. He has worked at Comprehensive Logistics in Youngstown for three years. He was released from prison nine years ago, after serving 15 years on a felony sex charge.

“I’ve always been a worker, that is something my grandpa taught me to do,” Scott said.  “I haven’t missed a day of work since I’ve been at my job. I even worked while I was incarcerated.”

Doll’s company is willing to make exceptions for felons. Superior Staffing placed a qualified applicant in a position, despite his felony status.

“This person had gone on and gotten his degree from the University of Akron in engineering after his felony two or three years prior,” Doll said. “We knew he had everything.”

The human resource representative for the Fortune 1,000 company admitted having made mistakes in his past and decided to hire the applicant.

“Guess what?” Doll said.  “He failed.”

Within a few months of being hired, he was found to have cheated on his time sheet.

“We got burned,” Doll said. “This was a candidate with a degree who gives you the impression during the interview of ‘Yeah, I’ve made a mistake, but I’m ready to turn it around.  You can trust me.’ Now, we’re a little more leery.”

Despite this, Doll is still open to the idea of hiring felons.

“I wish employers would be more open-minded,” he said.  “I personally would be if it were for my staff.”

In addition to participating in programs like Peterson’s Jones’s, Doll said felons could increase their chances of finding jobs if they get their criminal record sealed, meaning their offenses are no longer viewable by employers.

In September 2012, Ohio’s Senate Bill 337 went into effect, making it easier for eligible offenders to have their records sealed. To be eligible, an offender must have been convicted of only one felony, only two misdemeanors for the same offense, or only one felony and one misdemeanor.

Prior to this, only first offenders could have their record sealed, according to the Ohio State Bar Association.

Jones’ advice to other felons: don’t undervalue your prison work experience.

“One guy I know did a lot of time (in prison), but worked as a warehouse person for 10 years while he was there – driving a tow motor, running a fork lift, unloading trucks,” he said.  “It doesn’t matter that he was in prison – he can still put on his application that he was a warehouse worker for the state of Ohio for 10 years. That’s one less person a company has to train for that position.”

Jones maintains that felons with valuable skills will find work if they look in the right places. He cites professional football player and felon Michael Vick as an example.

“The fact of the matter is he sells jerseys, throws touchdowns, he can run, and he made that business a lot of money, so why wouldn’t they give him an $100 million contract?” Jones said.

“At the end of the day, companies are out to make money, so if you can help a company make or save money, a felony isn’t as inhibiting as you might think, as long as you get the interview.

“McDonald’s could be missing out on the best fry cook they ever had by not opening your application.”

TheNewsOutlet.org is a collaborative effort among the Youngstown State University journalism program, The University of Akron and professional media outlets including, WYSU-FM Radio and The Vindicator (Youngstown), The Beacon Journal and Rubber City Radio (Akron).