Economic Development, Human Resources, and Manufacturing

Thinking outside the box

Employers that have banned the felony box on job applications see workforce rewards.

May 20, 2016
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Cascade Engineering
Cascade Engineering’s Joe Gomez, Keith Maki and Jahaun McKinley, from left, are supporters of the company’s program hiring returning citizens. Photo by Johnny Quirin

(As seen on WZZM TV 13) In 2014, 10,000 prisoners were paroled in Michigan, and approximately 900 of them returned to Kent County to rebuild their lives.

Upon trying to re-establish themselves in their communities, one of the first hurdles facing former prisoners — who are referred to as “returning citizens” by those doing work in the area of prisoner re-entry — is the felony box on job applications.

For many employers, a checkmark in that box immediately disqualifies a job candidate, regardless of the details of their crime. That leaves returning citizens in the precarious position of not being able to find a job or getting stuck in entry-level positions that often don’t provide a livable wage —and that, in turn, can lead to recidivism.

National studies have found approximately two-thirds of formerly incarcerated persons are re-arrested within three years of release and almost half are re-incarcerated. In Michigan, the current recidivism rate is 30 percent, the lowest the state has ever seen.

According to Jacob Maas, CEO for Area Community Services Employment & Training Council, housing and employment are the biggest factors in the likelihood of recidivism.

“You need to have both in order to reduce recidivism,” Maas said.

The correlation between employment and decreased recidivism is so strong, the U.S. Department of Justice has taken an active role in promoting re-entry programs as a crime prevention measure.

This year, U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch declared the last week of April re-entry week across the country. In response, Patrick Miles, U.S. attorney for the Western District of Michigan, participated in several prisoner re-entry events that week. Miles also is championing an Employer Summit this week, 9-11 a.m., Thursday, May 26, at Western Michigan University Cooley Law School, 111 Commerce Ave. SW, Grand Rapids.

The summit is intended to raise awareness among employers about the advantages of hiring returning citizens and programs they can take advantage of to decrease any risks regarding hiring someone with a criminal record.

A job fair focused on returning citizens will be held in the fall as a follow-up to the Employer Summit.

“If we take seriously our charge to reduce crime in the Western District of Michigan, we must focus on this population of returning residents and work with other stakeholders to address challenges they face, to help them become positive, law-abiding members of their communities,” Miles said. “Ultimately, by increasing the success of formerly incarcerated individuals, we reduce crime and improve the safety and wellbeing of all of our communities’ residents.”

Two of the companies participating in the Employer Summit — Butterball Farms and Cascade Engineering — are longtime proponents of hiring returning citizens. Both have been hiring returning citizens for nearly two decades.

Keith Maki, director of marketing at Cascade Engineering, said his company began hiring returning citizens as a result of its successful Welfare to Career program.

“The purpose of the Welfare to Career program was that Fred Keller, our founder and company chair, felt there were underserved employment communities, of which those on welfare were a big one,” Maki said.

“We saw that program become more and more successful. Our retention was below 30 percent when we first started; now it’s 98 percent or better. People have come here and worked their way off of welfare programs and are now fully employed and have a career here. That same thought process was behind our initial look at whether it would be a good thing to look at previously incarcerated individuals and provide a second chance for them.”

Carrie Link, assistant to the CEO at Butterball Farms, said Butterball’s entry into hiring returning citizens came out of a similar need for talent.

“We needed to expand our talent pool, and this was one talent pool we tapped into,” Link said.

She said of those newly hired to Butterball in 2015, 57 percent were returning citizens, and at any given time, 30 percent to 57 percent of Butterball’s workforce is made up of employees with a criminal background.

“We see they are more dedicated employees, apt to do more, to take advantage of educational opportunities and to get promoted as much if not more than their counterparts,” Link said.

She also said data has shown the turnover rate for returning citizens is actually better compared to their counterparts.

Maki agreed: “Many of these employees are our best employees, people who truly and sincerely made a mistake and have turned their lives around and have done great things with themselves and their careers.”

Joe Gomez, HR administrator at Cascade Engineering, is one such success story.

Gomez said he knew his options were limited when he was paroled and is grateful for the opportunity he received at Cascade Engineering.

“With Cascade, the opportunities are endless,” he said. “It was ideal for me. I started at one of the manufacturing plants. I’d never done that before, but it was a steppingstone to where I wanted to get.”

He said he’s never experienced any form of discrimination while rising through the ranks at the company, and it was up to him whether he wanted to share information about his background with his coworkers.

“I’ve been treated like everyone else,” he said. “There are no barriers to what I want to do. I’ve made my goals clear and spoken to the necessary folks about it and just gotten support.”

Jahaun McKinley, lean systems manager at Cascade Engineering, has a similar story in regard to finding a job once paroled. He said he set his sights on Cascade Engineering because he’d heard it hired returning citizens and provided them with opportunities for advancement that other types of jobs available to him didn’t.

McKinley said he isn’t surprised by the success rate Cascade Engineering has experienced from its employees with criminal backgrounds.

“We come in with a different expectation,” he said. “You get so many no’s, and now this one company has said yes. … Very rarely do you find that person who wants to blow that opportunity.”

McKinley said while the hope is one opportunity will lead to another, that is often not the case, making companies like Cascade Engineering all the more important. He said a couple of years ago, he was curious about whether his experience with Cascade would help him get past the felony box, so he applied at two other organizations. In both cases, McKinley included his experience with Cascade Engineering as well as checking the felony box on the application.

He said the first company offered him an entry-level position collecting carts in the parking lot, and after multiple interviews with the second company, he was told he couldn’t be hired because of his criminal record.

For many, those limited opportunities turn into discouragement, said Lynda Sweigart, executive director of workforce development at Hope Network, which provides prisoner re-entry services.

“A number of the individuals … become part of that group of people who are called discouraged workers, which impacts Michigan and the U.S. workforce participation rate,” she said. “We are in the mid- to high-60s for labor market participation rates, which in turn hurts the businesses because there is viable talent out there that is not connecting to the workplace. These men and women make up a portion of that group.”

Sweigart reiterated the importance of employment both to a returning citizen and to society as a whole.

“Work brings income, which is incredibly important, but it also brings identity, purpose and structure and a lot of things into their lives that help them not to recidivate,” she said.

With companies like Butterball and Cascade Engineering able to show high success rates with their prisoner re-entry programs and more evidence that employment can have a positive impact on recidivism rates, banning the box is starting to gain traction in conversations across the country and locally.

Maki said while Cascade Engineering has removed the felony box from its initial application, the company does eventually obtain that information as it performs background checks.

“We look at it, but we look at ‘what was the crime?’ — the type, nature, if there is a meaningful intent to better oneself. There are a variety of factors that go into that process,” Maki said.

Miles said he encourages company leaders to consider hiring returning citizens.

“I’m not saying give ex-offenders a preference over those with clean records. I’m saying don’t automatically exclude them. At least give them a chance,” he said.

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