Some employers take chance on former convicts, but obstacles remain
The construction industry said it needed more skilled carpenters, and Joshua Williams had the training, but the best job he could find was scrubbing toilets at a church.
Nobody else was willing to take a chance on an ex-convict, he said.
“Once I was released (from prison), I never imagined how difficult it would be after that,” said Williams, 36, of Coraopolis.
Williams spent five years at a maximum-security facility in Fayette County after pleading guilty in 2010 to armed robbery and felony drug charges. He makes no excuses for his actions and says he “earned every day” that he was incarcerated.
But he did what prisoners are told to do, which is use the time to better themselves. He sought training in carpentry and HVAC installation. He stayed out of trouble. And when freed last year, he learned a hard lesson: Rehabilitation behind bars did not mean society would welcome him back.
An estimated 70 million Americans have arrests or convictions, an enormous pool of talent that often goes overlooked because companies won’t consider job applicants with a criminal history.
The issue has gained heightened attention as prison populations swell and employers struggle to replace a wave of retiring baby boomers without enough qualified younger workers to step in. Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton has called for opening more employment opportunities for people coming out of prison. In April, 19 large corporations, including Google, Uber and Facebook, signed the Obama administration’s “Fair Chance Business Pledge” that they would reduce barriers to hiring ex-offenders.
Impediments that prevented ex-felons from finding jobs cost the U.S. economy an estimated $78 billion to $87 billion in lost productivity in 2014, according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a left-leaning think tank in Washington D.C.
“The fact that it’s gotten so much attention at the federal level has been a sea change,” said Lois Davis, a senior policy researcher at the Rand Corp. in California. “But the barriers are numerous.”
Ban the box
A big barrier has been requirements to disclose a criminal record on job applications.
Anyone who checks “the box” is not likely to get an interview, much less hired, job experts say. Rick Keller said he knew his chances dimmed whenever he got “the look” from a hiring manager who noted his criminal past.
“You can just tell,” said Keller, 39, of Coal Center. “They see that and you can tell by the expression on their face.”
Nine states prohibit private employers from asking job seekers about their criminal record until after offering a job. Pennsylvania is not among them, although Pittsburgh has a “ban the box” ordinance for city employees and contractors.
Keller had highway construction experience before he was imprisoned on a felony drug conviction in 2009. He spent three years in prison and emerged without any career prospects. But he got lucky. After a few frustrating weeks of job searching, a friend suggested he apply to Envirosafe Strippings, a coatings and surface company in Carnegie. It was sympathetic to ex-convicts.
Keller was hired as a general laborer and has since been promoted to floor manager.
He is not the only ex-convict on Envirosafe’s payroll. Two-thirds of the 35-person workforce have prison records, mostly for drug offenses, owner George Vorel said.
Seven years ago, Vorel said he’d have never taken a chance on an ex-felon with a drug history. Then his daughter developed a heroin addiction and his perspective changed.
“That was the trigger,” Vorel said.
His daughter has since quit using drugs and graduated from the University of Pittsburgh with her bachelor’s degree in social work. Witnessing her recovery made him more sympathetic to individuals with a checkered past, he said.
But his motivation to hire ex-cons isn’t just about having a heart. Vorel has practical concerns.
“Of the top-10 job descriptions that have the greatest need, one of them is industrial painting,” Vorel said. “We have a need, we can’t fill this need, so we say how about all of these guys that are incarcerated? It’s working for us.”
Not every hiring decision has worked out. Some of Envirosafe’s employees have returned to using drugs, he said, leading to their dismissal.
Employers often cite these risks in refusing to hire an ex-con, or use it to justify paying them less, advocates of ex-offenders say.
There are also barriers that come from outside the company.
“The challenge that we run into bringing former convicts into the trades is that with heightened security risks everywhere, schools and hospitals and energy facilities are tightening their requirements (for contractors),” said Jack Ramage, executive director of the Master Builders Association of Western Pennsylvania. “School districts are treating construction workers just like they treat teachers aides or coaches.”
This issue was highlighted in a dispute between a union representing 21 roofers who had been banned from jobs on school property at Fox Chapel Area, North Allegheny and Montour school districts. State law requires school employees and subcontractors to pass a criminal background check. The roofers failed those checks, but they eventually prevailed in court when a judge ruled that the requirement was misapplied because the roofers had no direct contact with children. School officials maintain they were in the right.
“We certainly advocate for people being able to work and earn a living,” said Gene Freeman, Fox Chapel’s superintendent, in a June letter to the editor of the Trib. “However, when it comes to the safety of our children we always need to err on the side of caution and do what is best for our students.”
Companies say they sympathize with ex-felons but won’t lower their workplace standards.
They don’t have to, advocates say.
“You do not need to adjust any qualifications,” said Dan Bull, an executive vice president at Nello Construction and a former felon. “You just need to adjust their hiring policies.”
Bull served 21 months at Elkton Prison near Lisbon, Ohio, after he misappropriated three-quarters of a million dollars from a company he launched six years ago. His victims included friends and family.
Bull’s job search when he was released in 2013 was difficult. He received a few offers, only to have them revoked when a company’s higher-up saw his criminal history, he said.
Eight months after regaining his freedom, Nello gave Bull the opportunity he needed.
“I’ve screwed up, but I’ve seen from personal experience the power of having a second chance,” Bull said.
He has been paying it forward. Bull created a business incubator on the South Side for companies either started by ex-offenders or willing to hire them. The incubator is called Zerosixeight — the last three digits on a federal inmate’s identification number in Western Pennsylvania.
Williams is a former felon Bull has helped. In June, Williams started working for WorkPittsburgh, a home builder Bull co-founded in the incubator.
Williams is trying to move beyond his criminal past. Still, he keeps a permanent reminder of it stained on his body, a memento from his time behind bars.
A tattooed chain wraps his left wrist. It’s not just a reminder of his punishment, he said. The chain is a symbol of self-determination.
Williams turned his hand over, palm facing up, to reveal a broken link where you might have the buckle of a watch band.
“I’ll always be free, even on the inside,” Williams said, explaining the broken chain link. “I think true freedom is a state of mind.”
Chris Fleisher is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7854 or [email protected].