Getting a job is difficult. Even with a perfect resume, marketable skills and a clean record, an employer could still decide, you’re just not the right person for the position. Add a felony conviction to your record, and the chances of landing even a menial job are slim to none. Even after serving time, felons find the road to gainful employment a long and lonely one to travel for many years to come. Sometimes just checking a small box on the application could be the barrier to freedom and self-sufficiency.
His story: ‘The struggle is real’
The Rev. Chris Wilson, 33, knows the journey all too well. Wilson was 18 years old when he was convicted of several felony counts for burglary. He served three years in jail and 10 years on parole; however, Wilson still feels the repercussions from his past whenever he applies for jobs.
“To me, the term ‘convicted felon’ is nothing more than a barcode on you,” said the Crofton native. “When the police pulls you over, the first thing they’re going to pull up is your entire record.”
It’s the same when seeking employment. The criminal history question, often called “the felony check box,” comes up early in the application process and can appear to be a barrier for many people with records trying to get hired. Wilson said checking the felony box on applications is “discouraging” to most applicants with a criminal history because they are immediately set apart from other candidates in the hiring process.
According to the National Employment Law Project, nearly one in three American adults, or 70 million people, has an arrest record or prior conviction. NELP researches and promotes fair chance hiring practices, and reported that it benefits not only applicants but also employers and communities to give people a second chance.
Initiatives to “ban the box” have been gaining traction for several years from a national perspective. NELP reported 25 states and over 150 cities have taken steps to remove barriers to public, government employment for people with records. Kentucky is the first to do so in 2017, following Tennessee, Wisconsin, Vermont, Oklahoma, Missouri and Louisiana in 2016.
Gov. Matt Bevin signed an executive order Feb. 1 to remove the felony check box from state job applications. And Hopkinsville Mayor Carter Hendricks followed suit Feb. 3 to remove it from city applications, but even though those are steps in an inclusive direction, there is no law on the books in Kentucky requiring private employers to do the same.
At last count, NELP reported only nine states have implemented a law requiring private employers to delay background checks and criminal history inquiries until after a job offer has been presented.
Advocates believe removing the box is an important step toward felons rejoining society and re-entering the workforce. Without access to a job, many felons end up back in the criminal justice system. Kentucky’s recidivism rate is nearly 40 percent.
“The struggle is real,” Wilson said. “People don’t even know how serious the struggle is.”
Wilson, who now pastors a local church called House of the Lord, has heard the stories of people, like himself, with past felony convictions who are trying to do better but either can’t get past the application process or can’t land a job with advancement opportunities or equitable pay.
Wilson said he has felt overlooked for jobs or stuck in low-paying, temporary positions because of his 15-year-old conviction. The first time it happened was around age 23 or 24, he recalled.
“I was working at Macy’s in Portland, Tennessee,” he said. “I went through the 60-day temp service and they were getting ready to bring me in, hire me and train me for the new job — background (check) came back and they walked me out the door … In that moment, I knew that it would probably just be (jobs in) restaurants, fast food (or) hard labor outside.”
Wilson said over the past 15 years, he’s worked flipping burgers and cutting tobacco on farms, “the stuff that nobody wants to do and the stuff that everybody gets paid the least to do,” he said. “That’s about the only jobs you can have.”
Just last November, he applied for a job at the Salvation Army, a place he’s preached at and volunteered, but didn’t get hired.
“Even the captain at the Salvation Army said ‘Mr. Chris, we want you to work here,’” Wilson recalled. “I went through the entire process — this is the Salvation Army where there are felons and homeless people — but because my background check came back, they had just as many tears in their eyes telling me (they couldn’t hire me) as I had going out the door.”
Wilson said even though he had a good rapport with the local staff, he believes it was the Salvation Army’s corporate hiring standards that kept him out of the running.
When candidates apply for a job, companies can pull their criminal record via the FBI or the Kentucky Administrative Office of the Courts. The information comes from CourtNet, the AOC’s statewide database that collects court information from the local case management system in all 120 Kentucky counties and includes records on felonies dating back to 1978, according to the state courts website. Currently, there’s no timeframe during the hiring process that Kentucky employers have to wait before considering past convictions and criminal history.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission seeks to keep applicants from being discriminated due to their criminal record. The EEOC released an employment guide, which helps employers decide if a prior conviction is related to the job, how long ago the infraction occurred and how to determine the applicant has moved forward in a positive direction since then. Proving discrimination in hiring decisions isn’t easy, and most applicants aren’t going to fight it.
Wilson said hearing “no” after “no” is discouraging to anybody looking for employment but especially someone who believes their past criminal history is standing in the way.
“Once in a blue moon, the good Lord will put somebody in your life that will let you open the door so you can get in,” he said. For him, that somebody was YMCA Outreach Director Angelique Kates Victor. She opened the door because she understood his struggle.
To read Victor's story on how she wanted more for herself and the impact Jobs for Life had in her life, go to the original article here.