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Workers with criminal records may benefit from employers' need for workers

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

American businesses are saying help wanted. Many companies are offering signing bonuses, benefits and higher pay. And some are hiring workers they might otherwise never have considered - some of the millions of Americans who have felony convictions.

Harley Blakeman is the CEO of Honest Jobs, which connects companies with workers who have criminal records. He joins us now from Denver. Mr. Blakeman, thanks so much for being with us.

HARLEY BLAKEMAN: Glad to be here.

SIMON: Help us understand some of the problems that people who've served their time, paid the price and get out have in getting a job.

BLAKEMAN: Yeah, absolutely. So there's the very common and understood issues that people think of. When you think of someone who's formerly incarcerated, you think, you know, they don't have social skills; they don't have transportation; maybe they don't have housing; maybe they have bad habits. That's kind of the stereotypical...

SIMON: Forgive me - maybe you can't trust them.

BLAKEMAN: Yeah, exactly - the bad habits. Maybe you can't trust them. There's a lot of stigma and stereotypes associated that are kind of blanketly placed across the entire population. And you know, for the listeners, it's an enormous population. So almost 9% of Americans have a felony conviction. Some of the population have those unique challenges. But the vast majority of people with felony convictions in America are not recently released. So many of these Americans, five, 10 years after they've paid their debt to society are still held under the stigma that they're not ready for employment just because they failed the background check. And the truth is, they are your neighbors. They are in our society. Their kids are at the same playground your kids are at. And we should give them that chance to prove that they can be a valuable employee.

SIMON: Has there been a change with the eagerness of many businesses to hire?

BLAKEMAN: Absolutely. You know, obviously, a very tight labor market is one reason. But on top of all of that, there's also the inherent racial piece of this. You know, in the wake of all the protests, employers are looking for ways to increase diversity, especially with people - you know, people of color. Research shows that nearly 1 in 3 Black men will be convicted of a felony, whereas only 1 in 17 white men will be convicted of a felony. So if you want to address the racial disparity in your workforce as well, a really good way to do that systematically is to fully understand, how can we work with people who have been locked out previously by something that wasn't necessarily just?

SIMON: What do you say to potential employers who say, you know, I'd just rather not hire somebody with a record?

BLAKEMAN: So not every employer can hire every person with a record. And I gave a great example of this - is where I recently hired a woman who has two fraud charges. She applied for a job that I didn't think was a great fit. She was going to be able to have access to credit card information and bank account information. But I loved her as a candidate. She brought a lot of passion, a lot of skills. I offered her a different job, and she took it. She's a valuable asset to the company. You have to learn how to understand the risk. You don't want to put someone in the position to commit the crime that they had committed in the past. Let's say they have a violent charge. You know, that's one of the hardest ones to work around.

SIMON: Yeah.

BLAKEMAN: If you have a warehouse job or a manufacturing job or a truck driving job, there is actually no real reason for you to use a criminal history to weed them out of that job. And I think people have a really hard time wrapping their head around - you got to look past the stigma and actually look at the nature of the job duties and the nature of the crimes that they've committed in the past.

SIMON: Mr. Blakeman, I'm told you speak of this personally.

BLAKEMAN: Yeah, Scott. I was - my father passed when I was very young in Florida. And I was a homeless teenager for about 2 1/2 years and made poor decisions, hung out with some bad people, dropped out of high school and was selling drugs for about a year and a half and ended up doing 14 months in prison when I was 19 years old. And it was the best thing that ever happened to me, you know? The truth is prison can be a good thing. And somebody can be a better person after jail or prison than they were before they went in. And I, after prison, went on from a prison GED to graduating top of my class from Ohio State's business school. I got interviewed by 75 companies. And I graduated unemployed. No one would hire me, even after I had done everything I think I could do.

And the truth is that I had a lot of privilege. I was a white male with a good education, a support system, and I couldn't find a job. Three months after graduation I was still interviewing for jobs. And I got rejected for an assistant manager position at a fried chicken restaurant. And they specifically told me it was because my criminal history. And that's when I decided I had to do something. And, you know, it's three years later, running Honest Jobs. We have over 400 employers across the country, and probably 275 of those were in the last eight months.

SIMON: What needs to be done? Is it a matter of legislation or just encouraging employers to open their minds and hearts?

BLAKEMAN: It's a tricky question for me, (laughter) you know? It's a very tricky question for me. I don't believe background checks should be used unless it is a specific field - medical, legal. There are fields - financial, maybe - where certain jobs should be regulated. I don't think that a warehouse or a grocery store or a gas station should be doing background checks. If you are free and in society and you're not under supervision by the government, I think that the only purpose of a background check is to discriminate. Hopefully, this - you know, the next generation is - it seems to me like they're more socially conscious around what they expect businesses to do. And I think that this is one of those things that people are just expecting. You know, we were promised that our legal justice system was meant to provide justice, not to harm people who were already poor.

SIMON: Harley Blakeman is the CEO of Honest Jobs in Denver. Thanks so much for being with us.

BLAKEMAN: Absolutely, Scott. Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN FAHEY'S "SUNFLOWER RIVER BLUES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.