“Help Wanted” signs have gone up and stayed up in storefront windows around the country as the COVID-19 pandemic has caused widespread loss of life and fueled the Great Resignation, but criminal justice advocates say the worker shortage could be turned around if employers hired those most willing to work in a pandemic and in need of a job: formerly incarcerated people. Other advocates, however, say that even as job opportunities open up and more roles become available to those with a criminal record, many of the available positions don’t offer a living wage or health benefits, and those who are hired won’t escape judgment and prejudice.
An increasing number of employers across the country that may have excluded formerly incarcerated applicants are considering expanding their hiring pool to include those with prior convictions. While some business owners just feel that offering second chances and job support is the right thing to do, others say expanding opportunities to returning citizens will fill the gap in workers caused by COVID-19.
Before the pandemic, Franklyn Smith, a formerly incarcerated person and the director of community resources at Freedom Project Washington, an organization that works to end mass incarceration, says formerly incarcerated people had access to low-wage and low-status jobs and mainly worked in grocery stores, fast food chains, or construction sites. In the past two years, that’s changed, experts and activists say.
“Since COVID, you also now have organizations like FedEx and UPS [hiring people with criminal records] that traditionally would not hire individuals with histories,” Smith said.
For the most part, offering more jobs to formerly incarcerated people is a sign of progress. Smith says he knows of formerly incarcerated individuals employed by UPS who have become managers or shift leads, positions that offer higher wages and that can open up further leadership opportunities. But he also knows of workers in higher-wage positions of leadership who are being constricted to part-time work, meaning they don’t have access to employee-operated health care benefits, which are critical in a pandemic that continues to take a toll.
A number of barriers prevent people with previous convictions from getting a job that offers a living wage, health benefits, or a retirement plan. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, a 2018 study found that the unemployment rate for those who are formerly incarcerated was 27%—nearly five times higher than the unemployment rate for those without conviction histories. There isn’t data yet on how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the previous unemployment rate, which measures those who are interested in finding work but can’t.
Research also shows that incarceration is deeply tied with high poverty rates faced by BIPOC communities. Data shows that jobs are the most difficult to find in the two years after a person is allowed to return home after incarceration—around the same time when the person needs to pay fines, fees, and restitutions, as well as fees to obtain a driver’s license in order to get to their job.
Gatekeepers like hiring managers or lenders lay at the heart of these systems, but the economic system of capitalism is what makes finding work and establishing one’s footing especially difficult, said David Heppard, the executive director of Freedom Project who was once incarcerated himself.
“[Capitalism] disincentivizes folks seeing each other’s humanity,” Heppard said. “It’s about the bottom line and it’s about protecting your assets and managing risk. We’re talking about somebody’s son, somebody’s daughter, and I think that’s the travesty about COVID … I think that this capitalist society has been structured in a way that creates have-nots, and it just so happens a lot of those have-nots are Black and brown because of all the other deals and all the other issues and biases that are deeply ingrained into our society’s DNA.”
The data supports Heppard’s perspective. Black women are more likely to be the breadwinners for their families and suffer the highest unemployment rate of any demographic measured by the Prison Policy Initiative, at 43.6%. Black women are also disproportionately likely to work jobs that don’t offer benefits, like part-time or gig work. Meanwhile, white formerly incarcerated people are more likely to find higher paying jobs through their networks of friends and families, despite having the same qualifications as their BIPOC peers.
Even with an increase in available customer-facing jobs, like those in the hospitality and food service industries, it’s unclear if people who earned degrees while incarcerated will get the opportunity to use them.
“There is a lot of talent that is behind prison walls, not only just people who were working nine-to-five corporate jobs before they were incarcerated, or educated before they were in, people who got education and became experienced while they were behind bars,” said Waleisah Wilson, a formerly incarcerated activist and founder of a job-referral organization called NewLife-Second Chance.
Wilson says it’s critical that those with degrees have access to the appropriate positions given that higher-paying jobs allow workers to pay bills and save money, contributing to overall economic stability, housing security, and growth of personal equity, like owning one’s home. Wilson speaks from personal experience: When she returned home and began looking for a job, her master’s degree and pursuit of a doctorate made her overqualified for the positions she could find as someone with a conviction on her record.
Going forward, what’s most important to Smith is the opportunity for individuals to shape a long-term career out of employment rather than simply look at it as a job—no matter the kind of work. That’s why Smith tries to nudge people toward union jobs, where workers often benefit from a mutually agreed upon contract between workers and managers that affords dignity and agency.
“The fact that these individuals have skills, then all they deserve is a chance as an opportunity to be able to utilize the skills,” Smith said. “We can’t expect change if we don’t provide an opportunity for a person to change.”