Second chances: Employers find dedicated workers in those trying to rebuild their lives

Jan. 21, 2019

By John Hult, for SiouxFalls.Business

When Mitch Baartman returned to Empire Car Wash as general manager in November after a few years away, he faced a common problem: He was short-staffed.

To fill the gap, Baartman reached into a labor pool he knew to be reliable and immediately available: Work-release inmates at the South Dakota State Penitentiary.

“I wasn’t seeing enough applications, so I went up to Unit C, picked up some guys and gave them a ride to work,” Baartman said.

Empire Car Wash is a “felon-friendly” employer — one willing to hire ex-felons, parolees and probationers. For Baartman, that means more available help, but it also means part of his staff is supervised outside work hours.

He steers clear of violent offenders or those with theft-related convictions, but others are welcome to apply.

“Most of the time, they’re better workers,” Baartman said. “They’re held accountable when they’re in those situations. If I judged them on their past alone, I might be missing out on a great employee.”

Empire isn’t alone. The job market for those with criminal records in Sioux Falls has improved in recent years, according to parole agents, temp agency managers and others both in and out of the criminal justice system.

That’s due in part to an unemployment rate that hovers around 2.3 percent but also to outreach and placement programs that work with an increasing number of drug offenders in the city and throughout the state.

Lately, those placements have come more easily.

“For us, it really ebbs and flows with the employment trends within the community,” said J.C. Smith, the regional supervisor for the parole division of the South Dakota Department of Corrections, whose 18 Sioux Falls-area agents supervise about 1,200 men and women on parole. “If it’s a tight market, it’s tight for everybody.”

For manufacturing, construction, food service and other high-turnover industries, “you’d be hard-pressed not to find individuals on probation or parole working in those fields,” Smith said. 

It’s difficult to quantify employment statistics for ex-felons — the figures aren’t tracked by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics — but there are signs that restrictions may be easing.

A 2018 study from the Society for Human Resource Management and Charles Koch Institute polled thousands of HR professionals, managers and employees on hiring trends for those with criminal records. A majority of respondents said their company had hired someone with a criminal record, and 82 percent of managers rated those employees as equal in quality to those without records.

That’s not especially surprising to Kent Alberty, the co-owner of Employment Edge, a temp-to-hire staffing agency in Sioux Falls that places 150 to 200 people per year.

“Twelve years ago, we had companies that would never consider hiring felons,” Alberty said. “Now, they do.”

Low unemployment is a factor, Alberty said, but there are others: Alternatives to incarceration such as DUI and drug courts and the 24/7 Sobriety Program have kept more people out of jails and prisons over the past decade.

The Department of Corrections, South Dakota Department of Labor & Regulation and Lutheran Social Services also offer programs to prepare offenders for the workforce, including the National Career Readiness Certificate, the Job Search Assistance Program and hands-on work re-entry assistance.

Over time, Alberty said, the level of trust in those programs and their participants has grown.

“Just because someone has been convicted of a felony doesn’t mean they can’t be a good employee,” he said. “Especially when the company is doing something completely unrelated to the felony.”

Alberty took note of the need for job placement shortly after Employment Edge opened its doors in 2005.

“It didn’t take long for us to see that there were an awful lot of applicants who lived at 4000 S. West Ave.” 

That’s the address of the Glory House, a halfway house and treatment center in Sioux Falls. The address of The Arch halfway house appeared just as frequently.

Before long, Employment Edge was working directly with those nonprofits to connect nonviolent felons with jobs. The number of them looking for work has grown markedly in that time. In 2012, the Sioux Falls Police Department made 225 arrests for felony methamphetamine possession. Last year, the number was 1,305.

Some of the people charged with that crime wind up at Employment Edge after or during stints in treatment, probation or parole. When that happens, Alberty said, employers are often surprised at how well they perform on the job.

That has been the experience of Gilbert Gaskins, the assistant manager of the Sioux Falls Hampton Inn. The hotel began hiring Glory House residents a few years ago, with mostly positive results. Like Baartman at Empire Car Wash, Gaskins has noticed that supervised ex-felons working to rebuild their lives tend to have a strong work ethic.

“Those people who apply from the Glory House have to start somewhere,” Gaskins said. “I’ve had some people from the system who haven’t been successful, but for the most part I’ve been pleased.”

Glory House executive director Dave Johnson has two employment specialists to help find jobs for the 500 residents who move through the facility each year.

The nonprofit has a list of felon-friendly employers and reaches out to new ones on occasion. Still others contact the Glory House when the applicant pool gets shallow.

Those specialists have added at least three new employers to their list this year.

Johnson has been pleased with the community’s reception to his clients, citing willingness to employ felons as a key factor in recovery.

“Employment is one of those factors that we need to address to keep people from reoffending, to get back into the community,” Johnson said. “For some people, it might be that one nugget that helps them do well in a whole variety of different areas.”

Jamie Kern came to Empire Car Wash in November after serving time for possession of a controlled substance. Kern usually works construction but was glad to land a job at Empire quickly. He likes the pace of the work and gets along with his co-workers, but he’s also happy about the size of his paycheck.

He expects to move out of the Glory House next month.

“It’s lovely,” Kern said. “When you’re living in prison, you’re working for 25 or 30 cents an hour. I could find that in cans on the street.”

Skye Burnham-Endicott has been with Empire since his release from the Mike Durfee State Prison in Springfield three months ago. He aims to prove his worth wiping down vehicles and to move on to higher-paying work at the 41st Street location or elsewhere.

“It’s definitely a stepping stone for me,” Burnham-Endicott said.

That has been the story for Chris Taylor, a former Glory House resident who landed an entry-level job at a different company in 2017. The 30-year-old’s felony firearms charge was the result of a short commitment to Yankton’s Human Services Center as a teen following an adverse reaction to mental health medication. The commitment prohibited him from purchasing firearms as an adult, which he said he didn’t realize until well into his 20s.

He has stayed with the job since his release in 2017 and has since moved into a skilled position. Now, he said, he makes more money than he did before his arrest.

“It’s really been a saving grace for me,” Taylor said. “It’s kept me on the right path and really helped me out financially.”

Some avenues remain closed to ex-felons for several years, although that’s not always an issue of employer willingness. Banking and health care are among the fields in which regulations restrict hiring. That puts certain positions out of reach at Sioux Falls’ largest employer, Sanford Health.

Administrative rules in several states, including South Dakota, prohibit the hiring of those convicted of assault or battery-related charges from working in health care.

“We’re unable to employ those individuals whether we would want to or not,” said Bill Gassen, Sanford’s chief human resources officer. 

Then there are licensing issues to consider. Obtaining and maintaining licensure is a prerequisite for employment in nursing, for example, so a conviction that results in a loss of license puts nursing out of reach.

Even so, Gassen said, work in the health system isn’t completely off-limits for those with a record. Time since conviction, work history, personal growth and qualifications would all factor into hiring decisions for positions where the law allows discretion.

“We want to understand the person. Where we have the latitude, we want to exercise appropriate professional discretion,” Gassen said. “The bright line for us is when we think it might impact the health and safety of our patients, we come down on the side of the patients.”

There are incentives for employers willing to consider ex-felons early on. The Labor Department offers a Work Opportunity Tax Credit to qualifying businesses that hire targeted groups, felons included.

There are less tangible rewards, of course. Offering a new start often means making a lifelong impact, Baartman said.

“If you’re the person who gives them that second chance, they’re eternally grateful,” he said.

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Second chances: Employers find dedicated workers in those trying to rebuild their lives

“If I judged them on their past alone, I might be missing out on a great employee.” Hear from a number of employers who say prior offenders are helping fill their workforce needs.

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