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COVID-19 Pandemic Makes Job Hunting Especially Difficult for Ex-Offenders

Ex-offenders have always had difficulty in finding employment. But, initiatives recently have worked to alleviate some of the difficulties encountered by ex-offenders seeking employment.

The Center for Employment Opportunities (CEO) provided transitional employment, job coaching, and job placement for those recently released from prison. 70 Million Jobs (70MJ) is an ex-offender job placement agency founded by financial services executive and former prisoner Richard Bronson. It has been extremely successful in finding recently released prisoners jobs in the shipping, warehousing, and food processing industries.

The Society for Human Resource Management specializes in convincing business owners to give qualified applicants with criminal records an equal chance to be hired as others. Getting Out and Staying Out’s chief operating officer Sonya Shields said their recidivism rate for participants who graduated their schooling, underwent training, been mentored, and acquired jobs were 15% or lower as compared to the national average of the same age group of 67%.

States and the federal government have been moved to pass legislation making employment easier to find for ex-offenders. Michael Hartman of the National Conference of State Legislature’s Civil and Criminal Justice Program said 26 states have passed bills barring employers from inquiring whether an applicant has been convicted of a crime on the initial job application called Ban the Box.

Surveys from the Center for American Progress, National Employment Law Project, and Community Legal Services of Philadelphia show that a number of states, including Pennsylvania, California, North Carolina, and Utah have passed, or are considering, “clean slate” laws where those convicted of certain crimes will have their records automatically expunged after completion of their sentence.

Even the federal government is working towards erasing criminal convictions. United States Senator Bob Casey (D-Pennsylvania) and Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) introduced the “Clean Slate Act” last December which would seal federal records for simple drug possession after the sentence was completed and create a framework for others convicted of nonviolent crimes to request the same.

These conditions along with historically low unemployment rates occurring in the mid- to late- 2010s left a large amount of unfilled positions, allowing for employers to be more open to hiring the 600,000 plus men and women being released from prison each year and helping these people to get fresh starts and contribute to their communities.

But, now the COVID-19 pandemic has completely altered the landscape. Once again unemployment is high. Businesses are collapsing or are on hold because of long-term lockdowns. Job losses have skyrocketed. The economy shrank 3.5% in 2020. The pandemic has created an economic downturn that has significantly increased competition for jobs. “Because of COVID-19 ... everybody is having a harder time,” said Kristen Broady, policy director of the Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institute, “and that would be exacerbated for people who are being released from prison.”

One in three American adults has a criminal conviction of some sort, and the jobless rate for these people is typically much higher than anyone else. The Brookings Institute reported 45% of people released from prison did not have viable employment within the first year.

Between July 1 and December 31, 2019, CEO placed 1,793 applicants with jobs. For the same time period in 2020, it had placed less than 900. “Business dropped almost overnight,” said Bronson of 70MJ. “We were doing very well and then we were virtually out of business.”

Low-wage positions usually filled by ex-offenders are being fought for by everyone. Restaurants and other public service industries are laying people off, not hiring them, because of lockdown situations. Other hurdles difficult to overcome for ex-offenders include employment opportunities requiring licensing or bonding not generally open to convicted felons.

The Center for Economic and Policy Research said the unemployment rate is costing the nation between $78 billion to $87 billion in gross domestic product annually. 


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