Finding work

When the word ‘felony’ is on a résumé, obtaining a job is next to impossible.
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Teresa Collins
Teresa Collins. Photo by David Sparks

Teresa Collins wants to work. She has an associate degree in business management and a bachelor’s degree in psychology, speaks English and Spanish, and has a solid work history.

But Collins spent six months in jail recently and now has a felony record.

She almost had a job at a huge West Michigan company and has had several other offers, which were rescinded once the companies did a background check. She was awarded what is called a Metallica Scholarship (funded by the band of the same name) to receive training in welding, but she needs experience and more training to get a job in the field. No one will hire her because she doesn’t have experience. And because she has a record.

“People are afraid; I am a liability,” she said. “But I’m a physically able person who wants to work. No job is above or below me.”

There are hundreds of thousands just like her, she said, who want to work and are actively looking, but who are passed over time after time because of their pasts.

“People have to continue paying their debt to society,” Collins said, describing how she applied for a janitor position but was denied because of her record. “People need to set aside being afraid of taking on someone with a tainted past. Felons are a large part of the population.”

The Women’s Resource Center, whose goal is to “educate and empower women to workplace success,” served 140 women through its New Beginnings program in 2018 alone, with many more since it began in 2012. The program has mentors going into the Kent County Jail each week to work with women in workforce development training.

“We teach them everything from communication skills, handling conflict and the importance of arriving to work on time, to technical skills (beyond social media) such as Excel and Word,” said Sandra Gaddy, CEO of Women’s Resource Center. “Then when the women are released, they trust us and the mentor they’ve been paired with, and we are able to work with them here. We help them establish career goals and career paths.”

Gaddy and WRC are advocates for women in all arenas, including the county jail system. “When women come out of jail, they have more barriers to acclimating to the community than men do,” she said. “Those barriers can include finding housing, getting their children back, transportation and child care.”

Cascade Engineering and Butterball Farms, among others, have led the way in providing work for women and men who have been incarcerated. Professional Metal Finishers is doing its part as well thanks to Betsy Boss, president of the 15-employee company. She credits a college friend working at Forge Industrial Staffing who called and asked if she’d be willing to hire people with a jail or prison record. Boss agreed and has hired 50 to 75 people with records over the last nearly 20 years.

“I needed people, and she had people,” Boss said. “Things have really swung around in recent years because employers need bodies. They’ve also realized that people can be incarcerated for many things, but it doesn’t affect how they work.”

Many individuals with a record work at PMF for a year to three years, enough time to get on their feet, pay some bills and decide what they want for a long-term job. “That doesn’t bother me at all,” Boss said. “We have had some really good workers, and we’ve taught a fair number how to work. In our tiny shop, it doesn’t matter where you come from; you can always move forward.”

Mark Peters is CEO of Butterball Farms, which calls people with records “returning citizens.” Butterball started hiring returning citizens in the late 1990s when the job market was tight. He recalls noticing that a good number of young men from a work-release program were coming to work for them and were good employees.

“We found out they were writing on the wall at the work-release program that Butterball was hiring,” Peters said. “We then began trying to understand the people we were hiring, and we learned quite a bit. I sat on a panel recently and asked returning citizens what was different about our company. They said, ‘You don’t treat us any different. We get the same promotions, same training.’ Once people get in the door here, they are no different than anyone else.”

Peters said about 30% of total factory employees have incarceration in their pasts, while Boss said about half her employees do.

“You’re really missing out on a great source of talent for your workforce,” Peters said. “It’s tough to hire anyone for entry-level jobs — at $15 an hour or lower — who doesn’t have some kind of barrier such as transportation or finding child care, and that’s not just people coming out of the prison system. The ones who really want to change are loyal employees.”

For Gaddy, she sees women overcome barriers and rebuild their lives. “These women are working really hard to maintain sobriety, find work and stable housing to get their children back, and to show that they are productive and able to parent their children,” she said, adding that women coming out of jail receive fewer calls for interviews. Just over 20% of white women don’t receive a callback, but for Black women, that number is over 40%.

“If they’ve paid their debt to society, have the skills, and they’d be a good fit, but they have a record, give them a chance,” Gaddy said. “So many men and women continue to pay their debt to society long after they’ve re-entered the community. Without a job and housing, the cycle continues.”

For Collins, she sees a broken justice system that put her in jail not based on the crime she committed, which she said could have been a misdemeanor, but on the fact that she had a prior felony from 30 years ago.

“Just because people have a marred background doesn’t mean they’re bad people,” she said. “Companies need to open their doors; we’re human beings who need help. A felon is not who I am and doesn’t define me. It’s part of my story, but it’s not who I am.” GR

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