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Tight labor market, new law offer second chances for ex-offenders

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Heather Steavens-Jones has a staff of 11 for her Mechanicsburg-based business.

Six are former criminal offenders – a fact that the employer doesn’t hide.

“We take on a lot of second-chancers. These are people that might not be able to get hired or even looked at elsewhere, but we work really hard to get those people on track,” Steavens-Jones said.

Her business, All-In Insulation LLC, installs insulation and gutters. She’s been hiring ex-offenders three out of her four years in business. She credits that decision to her faith in God and her desire to make a difference in the lives of others. She’s witnessed what it’s like to try to get a job after serving time. Both of Steavens-Jones’ brothers were incarcerated and came to stay with her and her family after being released. After leaving the state prison system, one arrived with only $5 and a brown paper bag filled with prison socks and underwear.

“He had no birth certificate. No driver’s license. No Social Security card,” she recalled. “How do we expect someone re-entering the system to become a contributing member of society like that?”

The experience was eye-opening. As a result, Steavens-Jones will take them to get their proper documentation and offer assistance in their rehabilitation efforts, including meetings with parole officers and court hearings.

“I believe that everyone makes mistakes in their lives. Just because that’s where you start, doesn’t mean that’s where you have to end up,” she said. “We don’t care what you did before you came here. We care about what you do from here on out. I consider it commitment to long-term efforts.”

Other businesses are also starting to consider going the same route like All-In’s. Because Pennsylvania’s unemployment rate is so low – 4.8 percent as of March – employers are starting to look into the untapped labor pool of people with prior convictions.

What's the risk?

Not every hire is the same.

While there have been some notable success stories, All-In has experienced some disappointments as well – even one of Steavens-Jones’ brothers ended up back in the prison system. Some employees last a couple days, and others, a couple months.

For companies considering taking on an ex-offender, one of the first things to determine is whether hiring that individual violates state or federal laws, said David J. Freedman, a partner in Lancaster-based law firm Barley Snyder’s employment law group.

Under Pennsylvania law, there is an automatic ban on hiring ex-offenders for, among other roles, aircraft or airport employees, drivers of armored cars or in employee benefits, he said.

Another concern arises if an ex-offender steals money or commits a violent act against one of his or her co-workers. Both scenarios can put an employer at risk for a claim of negligent hiring or negligent retention – failing to discharge an employee who should have been released.

Sometimes, an employment practices liability policy or general liability policy will exclude from coverage employees that an employer knows have been convicted of certain types of criminal acts, Freedman said.

“That can create a potential legal liability for an employer looking to hire someone who has a criminal background,” he said.

To make it easier for applicants with a criminal history, some employers have eliminated a few hurdles in the hiring process.

Last year, the commonwealth announced a fair-chance hiring policy that removed the criminal history question from non-civil service employment applications for state jobs.

Zachary E. Nahass, an attorney for York-based CGA Law Firm, suggests that all employers remove that criminal history question from their employment applications. Although there is no law in the commonwealth that says a business can’t discriminate on the basis of a criminal record, Nahass said it is better to disqualify someone on the basis of finding the best fit for the job.

He suggests employers perform an assessment of potential candidates based on the position and environment that a company is trying to fill.

York County Economic Alliance, meanwhile, has held job fairs aimed at connecting individuals with a criminal history to employers who might consider hiring them. This past June, the organization also held its third expungement-to-employment clinic. During the event, ex-offenders were screened to see if they qualified to have their criminal history erased. Of those that attended, 25 were eligible for expungement.

The clinic was held prior to the passage in Pennsylvania of the so-called Clean Slate law, which automatically seals the records of people with low-level, non-violent records from 10 years ago. The Clean Slate bill was passed into law in June.

“We know that employers can’t find employees and there’s jobs available. And we know that there is instability in employment for individuals that have had prior convictions and that’s a barrier to stable employment. This clinic helped connect those two populations,” said Kevin Schreiber, president and CEO of the economic alliance, or YCEA.

He estimated there are roughly 11,000 unemployed people in York County. The YCEA is currently working to determine the barriers to employment that those individuals may be facing.

“As businesses consistently tell us that they cannot find employees and yet we know there is a population that is unemployed, our effort has been to try and get a better handle on why this exists and what we can do to mitigate those circumstances,” Schreiber said.

All-In’s investment in its workers paid off more recently as the company just celebrated its third anniversary with one ex-offender. The employee came to the business from the federal prison system, but has since turned his life around and is even considered a “star” employee at the company.

For All-In, the potential benefits outweigh the risks, said Steavens-Jones.

“We really believe there can be rehabilitation,” she said. “That one in 10 or one in 15 that succeeds, that’s what makes it worth it for us.”

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Emily Thurlow

Emily Thurlow

​Emily Thurlow covers York County​ for the Central Penn Business Journal. Have a tip? Drop her a line at ethurlow@cpbj.com. Follow her on Twitter @localloislane.

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