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Employers are slowly turning to ex-offenders to fill open jobs in a worker-hungry economy

September 2, 2018

CEO Isabelle Day of Quality Ingredients of Burnsville was having difficulty filling jobs last year when she read a Star Tribune column about hiring former inmates.

Turnover was high and we were using [costly] temporary agencies for labor, she recalled.

Today, six of the 60 factory workers on the floor of Quality Ingredients are ex-offenders.

Starting pay is $15 an hour and can reach $40,000 a year, and employees get annual bonuses, health care and a retirement plan.

Day and her plant manager work through Twin Cities Rise, the nonprofit trainer that puts ex-inmates and other low-income folks through a rigorous curriculum of personal empowerment, training and soft-skill development before placing them in internships, at temp agencies or in full-time jobs.

These are great people who have made mistakes, Day said. In many cases, these people are stronger than somebody walking off the street to apply. The work is tough. We see a sincerity and great communication skills. They tend to be respectful, thoughtful and mature.

As the job market gets tighter, employers are slowly turning to nonprofits such as Rise, Emerge, Building Better Futures, Summit Academy, Genesys Works, Goodwill Easter Seals and others that help former felons build skills and land decent jobs.

We are safer when these guys have jobs and housing, said CEO Dan Pfarr of 180 Degrees. We are their step from prison to the civilian world.

The Minneapolis nonprofit serves men on parole as they move from prison to community with short-term housing and counseling. It links them to training and organizations connected to employers. It has to happen quickly. Most parolees get only 60 to 90 days to get housing and find a job, with expenses covered by the Minnesota Department of Corrections.

The transition from prison to work, and civilian society, is not easy, particularly if you have been locked up 10 or 15 years and never operated a cellphone or computer. It also takes the right mind-set and a willingness to beat the odds.

Close to 60 percent of Minnesota inmates are back in prison within two years.

Minnesota has a lower-than-average incarceration rate but one of the highest rates of people on probation, which can end up being a back door to prison re-entry.

More than half of those returning to prison are on parole violations, according to the Minnesota Department of Commerce. Pfarr and Richard Coffey, 180 Degrees program director, said the violations often are for noncriminal acts, such as being late or taking a different route than prescribed to training or jobs.

These guys, and we deal with about 300 a year, get a case manager and we work with them on a plan. Some of them have some training. Im impressed with many of them. Life for them can be daunting, Pfarr said.

Low jobless rates upside

The good news is that the low unemployment rate is prompting employers to warm to hiring former inmates.

Tony Bulmer, a former prisoner, has moved up over six months from a laborer position to a $20 supervisory position at Gregory Foods in Eagan. Hes also moving from a 180 Degrees residence to his own room in September.

Im taking this opportunity to the fullest, said Bulmer, 31, also a trained diesel mechanic.

Bulmer grew up working in a family-owned bakery and likes machinery, which has helped in his new role.

If I can see how it works, I can figure out how to do it, he said.

A groundbreaking report last year by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) provides a road map into the successes of corporate policies giving formerly incarcerated Americans a fair chance at re-entry.

Its been embraced by large employers including Google, Total Wine, the Ford Foundation, the Open Society Foundation, Koch Industries, Walmart and other companies.

Locally, Quality Ingredients, Target, Bremer Bank and numerous small businesses are on board.

And Rise and its national partner, Root Rebound, which advocates for former inmates, have received great response from local employers for their Minnesota Employers Fair Chance Hiring Guide.

The guide takes employers through legal compliance and risk minimization, background checks, the rewards of hiring a second-chance worker, best practices for onboarding former inmates and strategies for helping them integrate into the workforce.

As the Minnesota prison system and number of prisoners and parolees generally ballooned over the last 30 years, in part because of mandatory sentences for drug and other nonviolent offenses, the state has spent disproportionately less on education, training and employment services.

Louis King, CEO of Summit Academy, which works with low-income people to earn high school-equivalency degrees, and train for entry-level posts in building trades, IT and health care, has said the best social-welfare program is gaining skills, and showing up for a living-wage job.

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