In 2022, "Help Wanted" signs are a common sight. In the wake of the COVID-19, employers in virtually every business sector struggle to find employees. Criminal justice advocates say it's the perfect moment for employers to reconsider their stance on hiring the formerly incarcerated. But could that call to hire ex-offenders lead to true change, or will it prove to be one step too far for employers who have previously proved hesitant to consider candidates with criminal histories?
Certainly, right now is a time of near-historic desperation for many employers. While unemployment rates have yet to reach their pre-pandemic lows – the national unemployment rate in February 2022 was 3.8 percent, compared to 3.5 percent in January and February 2020 – employers say the shortage of job applicants is similar. In addition, the pandemic has triggered a trend that experts have called "The Great Resignation," a mass exodus of workers from their employment. During the second half of 2021, more than 20 million Americans quit their jobs. November alone saw 4.5 million resignations – an all-time one-month record.
That surge in resignations, combined with an already tight labor market, has many employers struggling to maintain full staffs. It's also created a new dialogue about hiring ex-offenders. "From job boards to 'Ban the Box,' here are different ways companies can better recruit formerly incarcerated Americans amid the tight labor market." So read the headline of a Business Insider article published in late January. The piece noted the stereotypes and stigmas that formerly incarcerated individuals experience when applying for jobs and encouraged employers to take steps aimed at attracting these types of candidates. Daniel Zhao, a senior economist and data scientist for the employer review website Glassdoor, told Business Insider that employers could unlock a potentially huge segment of the labor market by being more willing to hire people with a criminal history. Statistically, the article noted, more than 70 million Americans have been convicted of a crime, and about eight million of those have been previously incarcerated.
The Insider article ties in with a broader nationwide push for criminal justice reform that would give ex-offenders more access to employment. Advocates say that the inability to find gainful employment is one of the top drivers for recidivism in the American justice system and that many repeat offenses (and repeat incarcerations) could be prevented by helping ex-offenders build lives as responsible, working citizens. Recently, legislators in parts of the country have even been pushing Clean Slate legislation, which would make it easier for ex-offenders to expunge criminal records – at least those not tied to violent crimes or other severe felonies. The idea is that, by having an easier path toward expungement, ex-offenders would have a better chance of passing pre-employment background checks, getting good jobs, and rebuilding their lives.
Is the current labor shortage helping this cause? Perhaps not yet. In a guest column for The Columbus Dispatch, ex-offender William Perry wrote about his inability to find a job, even in the current job market. "Not by lack of effort," Perry wrote. "Time and time again, I go for it. I submit my resumé. Land the interview. I wow them. The employers are excited, they've met their guy." Perry went on to note that most hiring managers are willing to accept his past – he was arrested, convicted, and imprisoned for an opioid-related offense in 2010 – but that the same isn't true for human resources professionals. "Suddenly, contact with the company becomes more rigid, curt, downright condescending," Perry wrote. "I've been ghosted. Offers are rescinded. My dreams dashed. To them, I am what they see on that background check, that's it."
Of course, there are two sides to every story. In Baltimore, for instance, numerous city employees with past felony convictions who were hired, have been arrested and charged with alleged criminal behavior on the job. Alleged crimes range from extortion to threatening colleagues to attempted theft of an ATM. Some have criticized the city government for being too lenient and too willing to hire candidates with serious criminal records.
At backgroundchecks.com, we are committed to helping employers hire responsibly, with all the information at their fingertips. However, we also believe that a criminal offense is not everything a person is and that many individuals who have been convicted of a crime and incarcerated in the past deserve second chances. That's why we offer the MyClearStart tool, which is designed to help job seekers with criminal backgrounds assess their eligibility to expunge criminal records.
About Michael Klazema The author
Michael Klazema is the lead author and editor for Dallas-based backgroundchecks.com with a focus on human resource and employment screening developments