With a Presidential election looming, the issue of the day is still the economy. California has the third highest unemployment rate in the nation, and that just counts people who are actively looking for work. It doesn’t include those who’ve been looking longer than four weeks, or the folks who are so discouraged that they’ve given up altogether.
One report shows that a worker who’s been unemployed for more than one year has less than a ten percent chance of finding a job. That chance is even lower for those with a criminal offense on their records.
For 65 million people with an arrest or a conviction, the increased use of background checks in hiring make it that much more difficult for this population to find a job. In April, new policies were issued for employers regarding how they should consider someone’s criminal background.
By the time Cheryl Lozano was 27 years old, she already had several run-ins with the law. She says all of it had been under the influence of PCP. “Possession of PCP – on one occasion, DUI. Second time that happened, then a third time, then I was sent to prison,” Lozano explains.
She got clean when she came out, and held down several jobs as a radiology clerk, receptionist and bookkeeper. She says back then, “they weren’t doing that many background checks. So it was easier for me to establish a job.”
For 14 years, everything was fine. But in 2005 she relapsed, and she lost her job. When she got back in the market, she didn’t realize how much things had changed since she came out of prison in the late-90s. She always checked “yes” when asked about criminal convictions, but she never got called back. “And the one job I did get called back, when they did a background check they said no because I had DUI on my record,” she says.
Today, competition for jobs is as fierce as ever. As of March, there were about three unemployed workers for every available job in the US. This puts employers in a position to be picky.
Sil Krevocheza owns a beverage company in Livermore and is looking to hire two drivers. Because of the overwhelming response in the past, he now requires applicants to apply in person, with their DMV records. His Craigslist ad also specifies “no criminal history.”
“It seems to me that anyone that has a criminal history has a DMV problem,” says Krevocheza. “To me, that’s someone that may have a criminal background, so we eliminate that immediately.”
He says he’s had some bad experiences with ex-offenders in the past. He once got a call from a Walmart manager about a couple of his employees.
“He wanted to let me know two of my trucks had been sitting behind the store for an hour,” says Krevocheza. “So I drive there. They thought it was a good time to get together and smoke dope. And you can imagine as an owner of a company. I took the keys and fired them both on the spot.”
Krevocheza says he’s also had positive experiences with ex-offenders and would still consider someone with a criminal record, but he needs a way to filter applicants.
“We would be here all day long interviewing people,” he says. “And actually, 90 people last time applied.”
But Maurice Emsellem, an attorney with the National Employment Law Project, says this type of hiring practice may be illegal.
“They have to show that the practice is job related,” he says. “That they’ve looked at the age of the offense, the seriousness of the offense, and the person’s record compared to the job that they’re applying to.”
That’s according to guidelines issued by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission 25 years ago. Emsellem says today, conditions have gotten much worse for people with criminal backgrounds because that population is growing and background checks are more common.
So the EEOC issued new guidelines. They reinforce the basic principles of its past policy, but now the guidelines provide updates on what is legal and illegal in hiring.
“The employers need to take a look at the individual,” says Emsellem. “If you have a system online that says so and so with a record won’t qualify and they’re immediately rejected by the online application, then by definition, they haven’t taken a serious look at the individual.”
That’s Raymond Chen’s problem. Chen was a sophomore at San Jose State studying computer science when he was arrested and sentenced to 30-months in federal prison.
“I went in for possession and attempt to distribute MDMA,” he says.
MDMA is also known as ecstasy. Chen’s been out of prison since November, and has been looking for work.
He diligently checks Craigslist and submits one or two job applications every day, mostly for warehouse or data entry positions.
Chen says he’s gotten couple of calls back. “But most of the time because of my resume, it shows that I only worked once, which was on 2008 I believe, when I worked at UPS. And they would ask me what I’ve been doing since 2008 until now. And I can’t really lie about it. So I tell them the truth and they never call you back.”
Today, 65 million people in the US – one in four adults – have an arrest or conviction that will show up in background checks. What’s worse, they are often riddled with incomplete information. In fact, Emsellem says back in 2006, a Department of Justice report found that half of the FBI’s background checks were inaccurate. That means, an arrest that never leads to a conviction, might still pop up on one of these checks. Emsellem says this unfairly disadvantages millions of workers in finding employment, especially people of color.
“African Americans are arrested at three times the rate compared to their representation in the general population,” he says. “Whites are arrested at half the rate compared to their representation in the general population. So that’s a significant disproportionate impact. And that’s true around the state.”
To give you a sense of the scope of this imbalance, in some major U.S. cities like Chicago, almost 80 percent of working-age African-American men have criminal records.
In Oakland, there’s an office supply company looking to improve this situation. It’s called Give Something Back. It proactively hires people who’ve had trouble finding work, including ex-offenders.
“If you walk around the office, you’ll find tremendous diversity in this office and that’s a residue of a design,” says Mike Hannigan, president of the company. “It doesn’t happen by accident. We reach out to try to make sure our workforce is representing the community.”
Hannigan says while his company provides additional training for these employees, their quality of work is no different than those without records. And he says the myth that ex-offenders are more prone to stealing or causing trouble is just that – a myth.
“The fact of the matter is, people misunderstand what incarcerated population is like,” says Hannigan. “It’s as diverse as regular population. Some of them are hard cases, some of them are people who had bad experiences and did bad things once in awhile. But some of them can transition into very productive careers.”
Hannigan says there are also certain benefits for employers who hire people with criminal records, such as tax credits.
“Also there’s lots of benefits once they do integrate because they tend to be very loyal and very productive and appreciate the opportunity to work,” he says.
“I was a go getter. I believed at an early age I wanted to be a DEA agent,” says Cheryl Lozano. “I know that sounds crazy but that is the truth.”
She didn’t get that DEA job, but she did find a position in sales. She’s grateful her employer didn’t use a background check when evaluating her.
Some companies are coming around reluctantly. Earlier this year the EEOC successfully sued Pepsi because its hiring policy excluded anyone with an arrest record. The beverage company has since changed its hiring practices. Advocates hope these high profile cases will encourage smaller employers to change their practices voluntarily. As for job seekers with criminal records, the two words of advice heard over and over again are, “don’t lie,” no matter how tempting.