Have Doubts About Hiring Ex-Criminals? Job Fair Experience Turns Cons Into Pros

”I was amazed by the quality of individuals applying” at a Sept. 13 job fair at the Cleveland Convention Center, said Bill Mazur, director of warehouse operations for Mazel Co. in Solon, Ohio. Although his company needed employees and regularly used job fairs, Mazur said he had to ”have his arm twisted” to go to this one, because the fair was aimed at applicants with criminal records.

The first annual Community Corrections Job Fair was sponsored by Cuyahoga County, the U.S. Probation Office, and other government agencies. Dyan Morgan, public information officer for the Cuyahoga Work and Training program, said the fair was the first event of its kind in the country, and was so successful that the city of Cincinnati and other counties in Ohio have been phoning to inquire about holding similar events. In a Sept. 22 interview, Morgan said about 20 companies called her the week after the fair to say they wished they had known about it.

Workers Overlooked by System
According to brochures used to promote the fair, ex-convicts have a very hard time finding jobs and are not well served by other job fairs. ”In addition to limited employment opportunities,” one brochure said, ”many individuals are not eligible for public assistance or Welfare-to-Work programs.”

The fair began with seminars for employers on state tax credits and federal bonding. Employers learned that they might be eligible to receive an Ohio tax credit of up to $2,400 by hiring someone with a criminal record. Also, a federal bonding program provides insurance against employee theft in the amount of $5,000 at no cost to the employer or employee, according to the brochure.

Companies hiring mostly for light industrial jobs were asked to participate, but the next fair will include more retailers, food chains, and many other types of businesses, Morgan said. Banks, she said, cannot hire people with criminal records, and ”home care and health care employers are cautious.”

But there were between 40 and 50 employers at the fair — including United Parcel Service, FedEx, Sheraton, and several temporary agencies — taking applications from over 3,500 people with the entire range of criminal convictions on their records. Many of the applicants belonged to the population of over 15,000 on probation or parole in Cuyahoga County.

Surprising Skills and Enthusiasm
Mazur, of Mazel Co., said he went in with very low expectations, and was surprised to find applicants with the mechanical experience he needed. The company accepted 200 applications and ran out of forms in the first half hour, Mazur said. Mazel had six positions to fill: one in ”order entry,” one in accounting, and four in a warehouse.

Dave Cunningham, assistant warehouse manager for Mazel, found the applicants ”better prepared and more enthusiastic” than attendees of other fairs. Cunningham, who interviewed some of the applicants, said they had records for felonious assault, theft, drug possession, and drug trafficking. A lot of them participated in schooling while incarcerated. In a Sept. 22 interview, he said Mazel has hired two workers so far and is following the same procedures as with all its applicants, including drug screens, background checks, and a math test.

The two already hired had forklift experience, but had been turned away by other employers. ”They had an air of desperation,” Mazur said.

An Unexpected Turnout
”We took in 300 applications,” said Chuck Kozlowski of Union Eye Care in Rocky River, Ohio. ”We ran out and started taking resumes.”

Kozlowski said his recruiters were ”very surprised at the quality of the applicants.” A lot of the applicants ”have skills and are very well-spoken,” but have had a lot of trouble getting jobs. ”They want to get their life back in order and become part of society,” he said.

Although Kozlowski said ”everybody deserves a second chance,” he drew a distinction between certain types of convicts, and said that it is ”difficult for an employer to hire someone with a record for child molesting or rape.” He said he wanted to hire those with records of ”white collar” or ”not serious” crimes.

Kozlowski said he expects to hire five to 10 people for a second shift at a lab for processing eyeglasses. ”If that’s successful,” he said, ”we might roll this out to our retail stores” and hire for customer service, data entry, and machine operating jobs. He said he is following almost the same hiring procedure as he would for any applicants, and would consider criminal records, or at least records of felonies, in hiring decisions. A record of a misdemeanor would not have any bearing, he said.

Kozlowski said he does not expect to pay or treat the new hires differently from the others. ”They just have to come in on time, do the job, and be pleasant,” he said. ”That’s all we ask. It’s very difficult [to find such workers] in today’s job market.”

According to the job fair brochure, the unemployment rate for people with criminal records is more than twice the national average. Ellen Houston of the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., spoke at the fair, arguing that giving ex-convicts a legitimate alternative to crime will not just allow them to support themselves and pay restitution, but will reduce crime. It might also provide employers with an unexpected source of good workers.

For more information on the job fair, contact Cuyahoga Work and Training at (216) 592-2739.