‘You just want to … have a chance.’ Ex-offenders struggle to find jobs amid pandemic
Back in 2015, Bill Livolsi Jr. had no trouble finding work even though he’d been convicted of wire fraud and was upfront with potential employers about his crime.
But that was before the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I am applying to jobs left, right and sideways, ” says Livolsi, who has been looking for work since April when he was released from federal prison after serving a 13-month sentence for the crime. “It is extremely difficult … They’re picking the cream of the crop when there are opportunities.”
Almost 1 in 3 adults in the United States has a criminal record, and finding a job when you have a past arrest or conviction has never been easy. But it’s become even more difficult in the midst of the economic downturn caused by the COVID-19 health crisis that has left millions of Americans unemployed and significantly increased the competition for jobs, public policy experts say.
“Because of COVID-19 … everybody is having a harder time, and that would be exacerbated for people who are being released from prison,” says Kristen Broady, policy director for the Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institution, which focuses on economic policy.
Low-wage positions, a lifeline for those with limited prospects, are in high demand and short supply. Restaurants and other industries that offer lower-paying jobs have struggled amid shutdowns aimed at slowing the spread of the virus. And with a national unemployment rate of 6.7%, employers who have their pick of applicants may be less inclined to hire someone with a record, Broady and others say.
The hiring dip threatens to slow the progress led by a growing number of states and municipalities to restore the rights of ex-offenders. They are passing laws that wipe criminal records clean, allow some who’ve committed felonies to vote, and bar employers from asking about criminal histories early in the hiring process.
Most urgently, the hiring slowdown may make it harder for the 620,000 men and women released from prison each year to get a fresh start and contribute to their communities, advocates and ex-offenders say.
“Meaningful employment is crucial,” says Livolsi, 61, who lives in Owasso, Oklahoma. “It’s crucial to rebuild your self-esteem, to rebuild your ties with your family, and just to be able to put food on the table.’’
COVID makes hiring harder
The jobless rate for those who’ve been incarcerated has typically been much higher than the general population. A Brookings report published in March 2018 found that 45% of those released from prison did not have any reported pay in the first calendar year after they returned home.
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The current jobless rate for those who’ve been incarcerated is unclear, but placement services that work with ex-offenders believe it’s risen during a pandemic that has caused unemployment to soar across the board.
The Center for Employment Opportunities (CEO), which provides transitional employment, coaching and job placement for those released from prison, made 368 placements in April 2019. But in April 2020, near the start of the COVID-19 health crisis, only 140 of its applicants were able to find work.
Similarly, for the period between July 1 and December 31, 2019, CEO found jobs for 1,793 of its applicants, but placements dropped by half, to 900, during that same period last year.
“We already know that in hiring, people with convictions face tremendous hurdles and I think COVID has just exacerbated those situations,” says Chris Watler, CEO’s chief external affairs officer.
70 Million Jobs, an employment agency for those with criminal records, says it was particularly successful in finding former offenders jobs in shipping, warehouses and food processing plants. But as the pandemic took hold, “business dropped almost overnight, by 90%,” says its founder Richard Bronson.
“We were doing very well and then we were virtually out of business,” says Bronson, a former financial services executive who started the agency after he served time in prison.
Will they commit more crimes?
Job seekers who are ex-offenders have to overcome stigma and suspicions that they can’t be trusted and may be prone to commit another crime, Bronson says. But historically low unemployment rates before the pandemic, which left tens of thousands of jobs unfilled, made employers more receptive to applicants who’d been incarcerated.
The need for workers also boosted efforts by organizations like the Society for Human Resource Management to get employers to commit to giving qualified applicants with a criminal record an equal chance to be hired.
But barriers to employment have remained steep. A majority of employers still check to see if job applicants have past convictions, and a host of laws prohibit people convicted of a felony from getting licenses necessary to work in various higher-paying fields such as health care or cosmetology.
Those obstacles have ramifications for not only the individuals who struggle to find work, but the economy as a whole, social justice experts say. ·
“There is a public safety angle if people can’t find jobs when released from prison,” says Ames Grawert, senior counsel for the Justice Program at New York University Law School’s Brennan Center for Justice. “It’s more likely they’ll return to crime which no one wants. And there’s research that homelessness is more likely and deep poverty… Even those who do find jobs earn shockingly less than their peers.”
The economy suffers
The broader labor market suffers as well. When those with felony convictions or who’ve been incarcerated struggle to find jobs, the economy loses out on roughly 1.7 to 1.9 million workers, and between $78 billion and $87 billion in gross domestic product, according to a paper by the Center for Economic and Policy research (CEPR), released in June, 2016, that examined 2014 data.
Having a job can help reduce the chance ex-offenders will commit new crimes, though the quality of the position and the ability to earn higher wages is key to success as well, research shows.
Getting Out And Staying Out (GOSO), a New York area re-entry program, says that recidivism rates for its participants who’ve gone to school, undergone training, received mentorship or gotten jobs in the previous 90 days are 15% or lower, compared with 67% for young men in a similar age group nationwide. The recidivism rates for its participants dropped as low as 10% early on in the pandemic, says Sonya Shields, GOSO’s Chief Operating Officer.
Eager to use new skills in jobs
Chauncey Floyd, who returned home last year after serving nearly 16 years in prison, says that like him, many former offenders just want to move on from their pasts and provide for themselves and their families.
Floyd says he was eager to find a job using the computer programming skills he learned while incarcerated. But conversations with potential employers usually end when he tells them he has a record.
“I was … trying to find a career, not necessarily trying to grab a job just to have one,’’ says Floyd, 46, who is living with family members in South Carolina.
He’s now looking for more manual positions and hopes to eventually start his own business. “You just want to basically have a chance,’’ Floyd says. “Me, going to prison, I don’t want to pay for it for the rest of my life … Some people actually just want to do better.’’
Don’t ask about criminal records in job interviews
While hiring has slowed, larger efforts to give ex-offenders more opportunities continue, advocates and public policy experts say.
Twenty-six states and Washington D.C. have passed legislation that bar employers in the public or private sectors from asking early in the hiring process if an applicant has a criminal record, says Michael Hartman of the National Conference of State Legislature’s Civil & Criminal Justice Program.
And several states, including Pennsylvania, California, North Carolina, and Utah, have passed or are considering “clean slate” laws that automatically clear the records of some offenders after a certain amount of time, according to a compilation of research on reentry hurdles and initiatives by the Center for American Progress, National Employment Law Project and Community Legal Services of Philadelphia.
On the federal level, U.S. Senators Bob Casey (D-PA) and Joni Ernst (R-IA) introduced the “Clean Slate Act” in December which would automatically seal the federal records of those arrested for simple drug possession. Those convicted of such offenses would have their records sealed after they finish their sentence. And the legislation would also create a framework for ex-offenders to request the sealing of records for other nonviolent crimes.
“That was a real breakthrough,” Grawert said of the bipartisan bill, which if passed will make it easier for people who’ve been arrested or convicted to find work without answering questions about their past.
Promises after George Floyd death
Promises by many businesses to address systemic racism in the wake of the protests that followed the killings of George Floyd and other African Americans could also open up opportunities for the formerly incarcerated, who are disproportionately Black and Latino, advocates say.
“I’m hopeful because I see in the job seekers that I work with a real passion to work, to contribute, to grow,” says Watler. “And increasingly I’m seeing employers … waking up to the fact that their practices have to evolve.”