(Photo via facebook.com/BakerInd)
One in every six Philadelphians have been incarcerated.
And according to a recent American Civil Liberties Union report, 75 percent of formerly incarcerated people struggle with employment a year after release. In a city with an estimated population of 1.5 million, that means at least 187,500 Philadelphians in this group could be struggling with employment.
On March 14, 2016, an updated amendment of the Fair Criminal Records Screening Standards Ordinance — otherwise known as “Ban the Box” legislation — went into effect in Philadelphia. Ever since, it has been illegal for every employer in town to ask job applicants to disclose their criminal convictions older than seven years (though the legislation allows for background checks to be conducted after offering a job to the applicant).
There are several financial incentives for Philadelphia businesses to hire formerly incarcerated people. Employers can claim up $10,000 in tax credits per year for up to three years for a qualifying hire through the Philadelphia Reentry Employment Program (PREP).*
Additionally, the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry administers two other funding opportunities: The Federal Bonding Program funded through the U.S. Department of Labor provides “fidelity insurance bonds to protect employers from any losses from theft, forgery, larceny and embezzlement.” Additionally, the Work Opportunity Tax Credit — which also applies to veterans and other groups — offers employers up to 40 percent of first year wages.
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Hiring formerly incarcerated people shouldn’t only involve reaping the monetary benefits, though: It’s also about giving individuals with unique perspectives and experiences — who, yes, may have committed crimes, but also paid penance for those crimes — a second chance at success.
But it requires special accommodations, too. Reps from Community Learning Center, Reentry Think Tank and Baker Industries shared their own best practices for how employers can support formerly incarcerated employees in their organizations.
Understand your responsibilities.
Jeffrey Abramowitz, former director of student services and workforce development at Community Learning Center, stressed there are expectations and responsibilities of employers who hire formerly incarcerated people. One of those responsibilities is being in touch with law enforcement about an employee’s whereabouts.
“For example, a returning citizen needs to be [held] accountable every time they’re out of their facility or out of their house,” Abramowitz, who served three years in federal prison, from 2012 to 2015. “When you come home, that accountability means you have to check in by phone. That means you have be accessible. When you’re at work, oftentimes, [law enforcement is] going to be calling that work site, asking if Mr. Abramowitz is working that day.”
Abramowitz said when he first began working at the Community Learning Center after his time at U.S. Penitentiary, Canaan, his boss received a phone call every weekday morning at 10 o’clock asking if Abramowitz was there that day.
Be flexible with schedules.
Sometimes, formerly incarcerated people are required to report for parole and probation meetings. While parole and probation offices are relatively flexible with meeting during lunch breaks or during non-work hours, these meetings could potentially interfere with work schedules, Abramowitz said.
However, the bigger issue involves those enrolled in mandatory drug and alcohol treatment: If formerly incarcerated people fail to show up to these treatment meetings, they can be charged with violating their terms of release, he said. And of course, if a formerly incarcerated person violates these agreements, it puts their societal reintegration — including their jobs — on the line.
Hire staff to specifically support formerly incarcerated employees.
Baker Industries has employed and accommodated people with disabilities since it was founded in 1980. The company has since expanded to include formerly incarcerated people as well as those who have been homeless and/or struggled with substance abuse.
“We are a trauma-informed organization, which means that the first priority is that everyone feels safe and accepted and cared for,” explained Beth Tiewater, director of projects and resources. “On staff, at both locations, we have a crisis counselor and recovery coach. They do workshops and small groups things, but their primary focus is one-on-one sessions with participants to maintain recovery.”
In addition to workforce development programming, these staff members can help connect employees to further resources and counseling if necessary.
“Sometimes, the crisis counselor is able to just help someone get things in focus and come up with a strategy that gets them through the day,” she added. “It’s a gentle way of teaching and modeling new ways of navigating through old problems.”
Those hiring formerly incarcerated people should take note at Baker’s fine print, too, Tiewater said. Whenever an employee is receiving this support, whether it’s in a group or one-on-one counseling as well as job training, they are still being compensated for being at work.
Hire third-party consulting and training.
Reentry Think Tank cofounder Mark Strandquist believes those with direct experience are the authorities on criminal justice. That means those who have been formerly incarcerated are the experts on counseling employers best accommodating formerly incarcerated people in their organizations.
Alongside a partnership with the Philadelphia Reentry Coalition, this ethos inspired the idea to offer collaborative consulting services to organizations wanting to hire formerly incarcerated people. For example, Think Tank fellows helped improve the pre-interview screening process at the Defender Association of Philadelphia, an organization that provides legal support to those who have been formerly incarcerated.
One way was developing the Résumé for Freedom, an alternative résumé to show lawyers prior to meeting face-to-face clients. Another way was being physically present in the waiting room to reduce tensions clients may have prior to meeting with their lawyers.
“Think Tank fellows were interviewing clients before they met with their lawyers,” Strandquist said. “And they were greeting clients as they came in, explaining the process as a peer-led prototype,” added cofounder Courtney Bowles.
Editor’s note: Department of Commerce Communications Director Lauren Cox submitted another tax credit opportunity after we published:
The Fair Chance Hiring Initiative is a pilot program that provides reimbursements to businesses who hire formerly incarcerated individuals. The Fair Chance Hiring Initiative was created to provide a more efficient alternative to the current Philadelphia Re-Entry Program (PREP) Tax Credit, and if successful this program will be proposed as a permanent replacement for PREP in the future. Employers can apply for reimbursements through the Fair Chance Hiring Initiative when they hire Philadelphia residents who have been released from incarceration within the last five years. To qualify, the employee must work a minimum of 21 hours per week and be paid at least $12.10 per hour, the City’s standard for a living wage. All employees must be approved by the Mayor’s Office of Reintegration Services for Ex-Offenders (RISE).
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