Hundreds of major employers including Facebook and Wal-Mart signed a pledge in 2016 to eliminate barriers preventing people with criminal records from getting jobs. Five years later, the job-search process for people with felony convictions remains a nearly impossible gauntlet — even in the weird post-COVID times of record hiring activity and not enough workers.
In an op-ed published this summer by The New York Times, JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon implored companies to help formerly incarcerated people rejoin the workforce. “This group is ready to work and deserves a second chance — an opportunity to fill the millions of job openings across the country, he wrote, calling on public and private sectors to rectify the “moral outrage” of discrimination against people with criminal histories.
That Dimon has gotten behind the issue (he claims JPMorgan, the country’s largest bank, has hired thousands of people with criminal records) is a sign reform may be on the way. The most successful progressive wins, from gay rights to pot legalization, materialized when financial interests began to back movements for change.
But there’s no magic bullet. It would take a major, concerted push to encourage the private sector to look past the stigma of a felony conviction, far beyond the current patchwork of fair hiring laws in a handful of states and cities. Virtually the entire punitive system is stacked against people trying to rebuild their lives after prison.
According to a 2018 Prison Policy Initiative analysis, there are more than 1.3 million formerly incarcerated people in the U.S., at any given time, who are unemployed. “They want, but they can’t get,” says Wanda Bertram, communications strategist at the Prison Policy Project.
Meanwhile, job openings in the U.S. hit a record of 10.9 million in July as the post-pandemic economy heated up.
In an interview with us, Jason Weitzner, who spent six and a half years in prison for selling pills, and got out early after completing a rehabilitation program, said he doesn’t have high hopes for career success. “There’s nothing I can get right now that can qualify as a career,” he said. “It would all be temporary for me at this point. People just don’t respond.”
Before he went to prison, Weitzner ran a successful smoke shop. He says it went downhill while he was incarcerated, and he had hoped to revive the business. But the terms of his parole prohibit him from working at any smoke shop. That leaves his best options as menial jobs, which are neither the best use of his skills nor what he wants to be doing at the age of 52.
“It's definitely a harder transition than I anticipated,” he said.
Job-search problems for former inmates start upon release. Case managers and transitional halfway houses are supposed to help people with reentry, but many of their procedures actually impede people’s efforts to start productive lives. Former inmates are encouraged to work, but they’re also under heavy surveillance. Try doing a job interview with an ankle bracelet on, or explaining to a boss that you can’t work late because you’re on a strict curfew.
“It sucks, with the bracelet on, there’s no flexibility,” Weitzner said. “It's restrictive, no question about it.”
Relatives who own a business might want to give you a chance, but it’s usually against the rules for the formerly incarcerated to work for family members.
Then, there are the laws that ban the formerly incarcerated from virtually all career-track jobs, from medicine to cosmetology. According to the National Inventory of Collateral Consequences of Conviction, there are more than 15,000 legal provisions in the U.S. that restrict access to occupational licenses for people with a criminal history.
One might assume these laws are needed to protect the public— for instance, by forbidding a convicted child molester from getting a job at a preschool—but some of these restrictions seem arbitrary.
In South Carolina, you can’t become an anesthesiologist if you’ve been convicted of a felony or crime involving “moral turpitude or drugs.” Connecticut won’t let those convicted of offenses “involving fraud, larceny or deprivation or misappropriation of property” run car repair shops. Nevada law prohibits people convicted of a felony from operating a charter bus. And several states find that a drug crime makes one too high-risk to become a barber.
Until recently, California prohibited former prisoners who had fought the state’s wildfires, for a fraction of the minimum wage, from applying to fire departments upon their release. (The policy still stands, but inmates with firefighting experience can receive a special certificate that makes them eligible to apply).
America’s biggest employers have had a mixed response to efforts encouraging them to hire formerly incarcerated people. On the website Indeed, one person claimed they weren’t hired because of a trespassing misdemeanor, while others with felonies wrote they’d gotten jobs.
Despite its pledge in 2016, it’s unknown whether Facebook has ever hired people with felony convictions, according to the advocacy organization Successful Release. The Menlo Park, California-based social media giant didn’t respond to our request for comment.
Long the world’s largest retailer before it was recently dethroned by Amazon, Walmart does hire people with criminal records, but only with restrictions, according to Successful Release.
“We hire felons as long as their timeline of conviction has fallen off,” the company told the group. They’re also barred from positions that involve firearms. While the company does not include questions about criminal convictions on applications, it does conduct background checks on prospective hires.
Some business groups have argued in favor of hiring restrictions that keep the formerly incarcerated out of the workforce, noting that people with criminal records might endanger customers or employees because they are statistically more likely to have engaged in dishonest, violent or antisocial behavior. Yet steady employment is key to helping prevent former convicts from re-offending, reform advocates say. The more solid and satisfying the job is, the better.
Talking with The Business of Business, Daniel Egipciaco, a formerly incarcerated 41-year-old, said he’s not above manual labor. But a former straight-A student, he always had bigger ambitions, like running a business.
One big mistake blew up his dreams. When he was 25, Egipciaco was persuaded by a government informant to help steal what he thought was cocaine from a drug cartel. The plan turned out to be a sting.
Believing he was a victim of entrapment, he went to trial and lost, getting stuck with a mandatory minimum of 25 years in prison. He served about 14 years before, in light of excellent conduct and a showing of reforming himself, the government agreed to revise their sentencing request. He’s now home with his family.
Egipciaco used to run a t-shirt shop and a music studio. He still aspires to get a college degree and become an entrepreneur. “You're starting from scratch,” he says. “You can’t go to a bank and ask for a business loan without them asking if you’re a felon. The bar is set so high, you can't even get back to where you were before you went away, much less move ahead.”