A sign seeking temporary workers sits inside a King Soopers grocery store where workers are on strike across the Denver metro area on Jan. 12, 2022. About 7,000 workers at the Kroger-owned grocery chain are set to strike for three weeks on claims of unfair labor practices. (Photo by Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images)

This past November, over 60 companies descended upon New York City’s Madison Square Garden to meet and greet potential new employees. From VICE and Spotify to JP Morgan and Live Nation, the featured companies would attract job seekers at all career stages. However, this particular job fair—hosted by ROC Nation and Reform Alliance—was designed specifically for formerly incarcerated applicants who are often tragically overlooked to the detriment of individuals, their families, and the local and national economy as a whole. 

This recent job fair—and its success in garnering interest from major corporations—also comes when more companies are newly considering formerly incarcerated applicants amidst labor shortages caused by the pandemic. As reported by Prism, the growing number of companies looking to hire the formerly incarcerated workers has been met with praise by advocates who feel that it will both close labor gaps and also widen access to job markets that have historically been closed off—in 2018, the unemployment rate for the formerly incarcerated hovered over 27%.

“I’ve noticed more corporations asking what they can do and joining coalitions to figure out how they can hire and maintain employment from people impacted by the system,” Robert Rooks, CEO of Reform Alliance, said in an interview with Prism.  

Rooks says it is too early to assess the full magnitude of this pattern and the exact number of companies that have begun to change internal policies regarding hiring formerly incarcerated applicants. Still, it is certain that if this trend does prove to be as widespread as some media reports suggest—and as some advocates hope—it will not be the only major shift in American workplace culture. 

Since the onset of the pandemic, people across the country have been thinking about the role work plays in their lives. Labor strikes, as well as the Great Resignation—the voluntary exodus of millions of Americans from their jobs—have shifted how companies view whose work and welfare is valued. While these changes may be opening up new opportunities for the formerly incarcerated, it’s crucial to consider whether these shifts include viewing them as legitimate members of the workforce whose safety, rights, and personal concerns deserve to be protected—or simply as temporary and expendable replacements. 

Not everyone can flip the “passion paradigm

As made clear via the Great Resignation, American workers are leaving their jobs at record rates, in part because of how the pandemic has offered the opportunity for select portions of the country’s labor force to rethink their relationship to work, their orientation toward capitalism, and what a healthier work-life balance actually looks like. Workers have been making demands, striking, quitting, organizing unions, and using leverage created by labor shortages to push for permanent changes, such as early pandemic accommodations to work from home. In a Berkeley News profile on the pending changes coming to the American workplace, author and lecturer Homa Bahrami explained that “in yesterday’s world, pre-COVID, we organized our lives around our work schedules.”

“Now, it’s exactly the opposite,” said Bahrami. “Work has to fit our lives.”

Bahrami’s observation suggests that the pandemic is disrupting what some researchers have coined the “passion paradigm”—the idea that you should derive deep satisfaction from your work and that your job is central to your identity. The voluntary exodus of millions of Americans from their jobs—4.5 million in November 2021 alone—has in many ways been fueled by a reignited desire among workers to pursue jobs that more deeply align with their passions. On the other hand, many workers, particularly younger millennials and members of Gen-Z, are abandoning the idea of “the dream job” and instead recognizing how a selfless devotion to labor supports capitalism and other structures of oppression laid bare by the pandemic. Sarah Jaffe talks about this sea change in her 2021 book Work Won’t Love You Back, noting how people are expected to work because they love it, but in fact “it’s not a victory” when work demands our love.

Left in the gaping hole between work opportunities and a post-passion paradigm work culture are the many formerly incarcerated workers whom companies are turning to in order to supplement their waning staff. For all of the praise and support the talent pool has received in the midst of labor shortages, the ability to relinquish the tie between love and labor isn’t necessarily available for them. The need for work to demand one’s love—or at least their unwavering loyalty—continues to be a reality for some formerly incarcerated employees due both to their economic vulnerability and the carceral constraints they continue to live under even after their release from prison. 

When opportunity meets vulnerability

If more workers are focused on cultivating their lives outside of work, it’s necessary to consider how that transition will impact workers in more vulnerable positions and ensure that they are not exploited by employers attempting to retain leverage over workforces. For formerly incarcerated workers to have a chance at success, employers must prioritize implementing particular accommodations and new practices that meet the often strict requirements of court-ordered supervision. Unfortunately, the inability or unwillingness of employers to be flexible around these needs often creates the most invisible yet insurmountable barriers. 

Those requirements can range from travel restrictions that prevent those on probation from crossing state lines to mandatory appointments with parole officers that are often scheduled during work hours. Formerly incarcerated job seekers can even be barred from certain industries such as cosmetology or emergency first responders because of their ineligibility to become licensed even if they have obtained the necessary training and possess the skills to thrive in those fields. As reported by Prism, formerly incarcerated entrepreneurs who have created their own businesses—often as ways to acquire a certain level of agency over their work lives—have struggled throughout the pandemic to access government loans, such as those offered through the Paycheck Protection Program, simply because those programs barred business owners who had criminal records. 

Formerly incarcerated workers face the combined difficulty of finding jobs willing to hire those who have been incarcerated and the requirement that many people living on probation and parole be employed to avoid reincarceration. This only heightens their vulnerability as employees, especially with employers eager to take advantage of their precarity. Last year, advocates in New York City raised alarms about “body shops,” unregulated, non-union labor brokers that hire formerly incarcerated workers to do construction work for third-party companies. These brokers rarely provide personal protective equipment, training, or other additional safety measures, creating incredibly dangerous work conditions that offer low wages and no benefits.

In an April letter to the New York City Council, advocates with the National Employment Law Project (NELP) expressed concerns about the dangers of body shops and the degree to which those types of employment opportunities “overemphasize the anti-recidivist or rehabilitative quality of any work” while underemphasizing the risks that New Yorkers under community supervision face such as reincarceration, unfair discrimination, and lost wages. 

“By targeting workers made desperate for work by court-surveillance and the threat of re-incarceration, unregulated labor brokers combine and exacerbate racialized inequalities for workers in criminal punishment, workplace safety, and wages,” the group wrote. 

In November, New York’s City Council successfully passed a bill to help regulate the city’s body shop industry by, among other measures, requiring that these labor brokers be licensed and make employees aware of their rights, minimum wage, and ensure that they have the skills and training necessary to perform these construction tasks. Councilmember Diana Ayala, who helped introduce the legislation, says it was designed to target an industry that has routinely “[taken] advantage of the scarcity of employment opportunities for re-entry workers, and effectively force[d] these workers into dangerous, low-wage jobs with no training.” 

Clean Slate 

Legislation that helps make particular industries less able to exploit formerly incarcerated workers is only one avenue to create protections for those who have returned home from prison and are in search of quality and safe work. A movement around expunging criminal records entirely has also gained momentum. While record expungement can help remove the hundreds of collateral consequences that accompany a criminal record, it can also have an immense impact on increasing jobs access, given that roughly 96% of U.S. businesses conduct background checks during their hiring processes.

The Clean Slate Initiative, a national coalition that advances policies to automatically expunge eligible criminal records, has been working with states to develop and adopt their own Clean Slate legislation. Utah, Michigan, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania have signed Clean Slate legislation into law, and on Feb. 10, Utah announced a partnership with Code for America to use their technology to help implement their Clean Slate policies.

Automatic expungement has proven to help not just job-seekers but also business owners who have been formerly incarcerated. In an April 2018 video created by the Center for American Progress and promoted by Code For America, Pennsylvania resident Ronald Lewis spoke about how he has continued to feel the impact of his record over a decade after his arrest and conviction. Despite all of the ways that Lewis’ life has completely transformed, his record was an almost insurmountable barrier. While on the job search, he would get multiple interviews at companies until it came time for his background check, and then “it was, ‘We’ll call you, don’t call us.’”

“That broke my heart because you thought life was about to amount to something,” said Lewis. “I’ve got the qualifications, and I know I can do the job, I just wasn’t given the opportunity. I’m way more than two misdemeanors, and that was so long ago. My thinking [now] is different.” 

Determined to make a way, Lewis started his own heating and air conditioning business and began hiring formerly incarcerated employees to offer them second chances. Still, Lewis faced new obstacles as he was barred from subcontracting work from certain companies because of the misdemeanors on his record. 

“Clean Slate for me would mean my name is my name,” Lewis said at the time. “My family’s name is back. It would match who I am today.” 

What comes first: policy or culture change?

For all of the benefits of automatic expungement and the profound impact it can have on the lives of people like Lewis, pushback continues from some corners. Meilani Santillán, Program Director at Code for America, says that one of the primary points of hesitation is concern around cost due to the technical aspects of the work. In truth, however, the price tag is often much lower than many counties would expect. For example, Santillán said that San Diego received an over $2 million grant to update internal technologies needed to execute automatic expungement.  

“From that $2 million grant, they only used $30,000 of it,” said Santillán. “[It] is a perfect example of when you actually sit down and do the planning—map out what data needs to move where, what sources do we have to use—you can cut out a lot of that fat and cut out a lot of the potential cost.”

Code for America is among the founding members of the Clean Slate Initiative and while the work of automatic expungement was developing momentum prior to the pandemic, Santillán has noted even more companies becoming invested in this work over the past year. 

Among those she cited were JP Morgan Chase’s Second Chance Agenda. Santillán also feels that more corporations are rethinking their priorities when recruiting new employees and the potential impacts of past policies that have historically gone unchallenged. Santillán believes that rethinking what role criminal records play and their purpose in a company’s hiring process should be a primary question for employers. She says that not only should employers be asking themselves what are the qualities they really want to screen candidates for, they should also be considering what role they actually want to play in their communities and how to ensure they can provide opportunities for people to thrive and contribute.

“That part has actually been really exciting and seeing what sort of organizing businesses themselves are doing and how they think about stepping into this arena more fully has been really great to see,” Santillián said.

The success of Clean Slate initiatives and what they ultimately aim to do recognizes the enduring impact of having a criminal record—both the stigma that prevents employers from hiring formerly incarcerated applicants and the vulnerability that endures even after one is hired. Clearing a record then doesn’t erase that stigma but rather creates an avenue for individuals to not be as deeply impacted by it. So long as society carries negative perceptions of the formerly incarcerated, how impactful any legislative or policy shift can be in fundamentally changing how they are valued in or outside of the labor market remains to be seen. 

That tension between cultural and political change, however, has always been a feature of movements for social justice, says Rooks. Social movements can happen both ways, and Rooks points out how during the fight for civil rights legislation in the ’60s, change came from the government’s decision to enact policies despite the lack of majority public support. On the other hand, there have also been movements where a groundswell of mass public protest was necessary to pressure policy changes by the government.

“I am indifferent, to be honest, in terms of which one has to happen first,” Rooks said. “I think we need to push from all sides and do our best to create movement.”

Tamar Sarai

Tamar Sarai is a features staff reporter at Prism. Follow her on Twitter @bytamarsarai.