Monday, February 24, 2014

Ex-Cons May Finally Have a Real Shot at Jobs in Indy

I know, I know... I fell off of the blogging wagon. I was 2 parts into a 7-part series on pacifism, and then - wham! - life hit hard (in a good way) and my blog faded into the background. I feel like I'm starting to get my bearings so maybe I will pick that series up again shortly. In the meantime, I wanted to update all of my friends who live in Indianapolis - and especially those who have a felony on their records - about an important change in our city's policies that just happened tonight. Through the leadership of IndyCAN, Indianapolis has now joined several states in "banning the box" that keeps ex-felons from getting jobs.

Before I explain what this means, I want you to think back to the last time that you applied for a job. For some of you, it's probably been a while, but anyone who has had to do this in the past few years remembers how vulnerable and inadequate you feel whenever you fill out the application form. For me, one of the last jobs I've had was at a "fast food" restaurant where I was working just one year ago. Now, I had gotten my first job ever at a fast food restaurant when I was 17 years old and I had a decade of education and experience since then, so you would think that I would go into an interview like that with 100% confidence, but I didn't. Those applications have a way of making you doubt yourself. You're supposed to name your qualifications, list the schools where you've attended, describe your employment history, etc. You only have the space of a few lines to try to convince an employer (whom you may or may not have even seen in person) that you are worth hiring. That is hard enough in itself.

But for many people, there is one question that looms over all of the rest of them: "Have you EVER been convicted of a felony?" Now, imagine for a moment that you had convicted a felony. Perhaps it was something you did when you were 19, and now you're 45 - much older and wiser than during your teenage years. Well, even in that case, you would still have to check, "Yes." Or imagine that you were convicted of a felony more recently but, by the grace of God, came to see the error of your ways and decided to turn your life around. Since then, you have sought help and have dedicated yourself to never committing another crime again. Well, even in that case, you would still have to check, "Yes." And if you check yes, your chances of getting that job DRAMATICALLY reduce. 70% of employers admit that as soon as they see that question answered, "Yes," they throw the application in the trash without giving it a further thought. Of the remaining 30% of employers, studies show that the likelihood of a person getting hired who has a record drops by 50%. Any college grad can tell you how hard it is to get a job when you came straight out of the university and don't have any work experience. Just imagine how hard it is if you have a record!

In response to this problem (which is just one aspect of the greater problem of mass incarceration), an organization called PICO has spear-headed a movement to "Ban the Box" on applications like these in order to make it plausible for ex-offenders to successfully reintegrate into society. PICO's local chapter here in Indianapolis, an organization called IndyCAN, has been working to bring these kinds of reforms in our own city, and our City-County Council just voted to implement them tonight.

This is what they decided to do. The City-County Council oversees all city-government organizations (Parks & Recreation, Waste Disposal, Indianapolis Power & Light, etc.), and they decided that they will no longer ask anyone applying for a job in one of those organizations whether they have committed a felony on their initial application. Note: these organizations can and most likely will still do a criminal background check later in the interview process, but they can only do that after they have decided whether or not they want to hire you first. If something turns up from your criminal background check, they can't just revoke the offer. Instead, they have to prove that it meets the following four criteria to revoke the offer: (1) that the crime was directly related to the kind of work you're applying to do, (2) that the crime was serious, (3) that the crime was recent (or that you have not shown signs of progress), or (4) that you were actually convicted and not just arrested or even tried for the crime. So, if you got in trouble for embezzlement last year (e.g. stealing money from a cash register), and you applied for a job where you have to handle a lot of money this year, then a red flag would pop up on their screen and they would have legitimate reason not to hire you. However, if you applied for a job that didn't involve handling money or if it happened 20 years prior, then the employer would still have to hire you, even though you have a felony on your record. And that is a HUGE improvement over the current situation. For those of you who find yourself in this situation, this new policy will start taking effect in 90 days. By June of 2014, you should have a much easier time finding a job.

However, I want to make one more clarification: This does not apply to every job in Indianapolis. If you're applying for jobs in the summer, you'll still find that most restaurants and factories ask the question, "Have you EVER been convicted of a felony?" on their applications. The City-County Council did not pass a law making this question illegal. Instead, they decided that they themselves would no longer ask this question. However, they did go one step further with it. They decided that they will only subcontract to companies that also refuse to ask this question, which includes a lot of business. So, for example, you may be a privately-owned construction company that the government decides to hire to build a new building. If you have the question, "Have you EVER been convicted of a felony?" on your applications, then the city government will no longer be able to work with you, starting in June.

What does this mean for my friends with felonies? You should apply for government jobs, and if you come across any company that asks about your record on its initial application, you should report it to the government. They're not doing anything illegal, so it won't get you the job and you can't sue them for it, but it may make them lose business, which will inspire more companies to drop that question from their applications in the future.