Ex-cons confront labor market that's likely to leave them behind
Eric Hughie felt lucky to land a job making eyeglasses in January. Then his job vanished, along with 40 million others, as the coronavirus tore through America.
But Hughie confronts an even steeper road than most of nation's newly unemployed: He is a convicted criminal.
"I'm afraid of the stereotype," says Hughie, 44, who served three years in state prison for possession of a weapon. "Who knows how people really might begin to treat you or judge you. I feel like that's really a strike against you in general."
The number of people with a criminal record has soared since the 1980s. Millions of these Americans, a disproportionate number of whom are Black, are struggling to find work so they can rebuild their lives. Their diminished outlook comes as aggressive police tactics have prompted a national soul-searching about the long history of racism in the U.S.
An estimated one out of every four people who've been incarcerated is currently unemployed. For many, the coronavirus job market looks grimmer than ever, raising the prospects of a return to crime.
"We're not good at successful reintegration in normal times, but right now I don't see that we're doing anything to mitigate the issues they're going to face," said Jennifer Doleac, an associate professor of economics at Texas A&M University who specializes in crime and discrimination. "I'm very pessimistic about what this means for the re-entry population."
Data on the unemployment rate for Americans with a criminal history isn't well documented, but a number of studies prior to the coronavirus outbreak estimated it at well above 25%. One in 2018 by the Prison Policy Initiative found that formerly incarcerated people are unemployed at a rate of over 27%, and another by the National Employment Law Project said as many as 75% remain unemployed for as long as a year after their release.
The jobs most frequently available to people with criminal records are in restaurants, warehouses and construction, all of which can't be done at home, said Richard Bronson, the founder and chief executive officer of 70 Million Jobs, an organization that helps these people find employment. Because of this, Bronson estimates their jobless rate has risen to 50% from about 30% before the outbreak.
And even if they had a job before the pandemic, they usually get hired on a contingent or contract basis, meaning they're the first to be laid off in a recession.
"I don't expect a strong appetite for this population for a while," he said. "When unemployment was at 3.5% -- a level that no economist thinks we'll be at real soon -- there were still huge headwinds that we'd face."
The U.S. prison population was 1.47 million at the end of 2018, and while the total has been falling, Black Americans are incarcerated at a much higher rate than any other race. In 2018, the rate was 5.8 times more for Black men than white men and 1.8 times higher for Black women than white women, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Ultimately, they experience higher unemployment because businesses see people with criminal backgrounds as a liability, even though they can contribute productively, according to Bronson.
So even with recent social movements calling attention to racial discrimination, it isn't easy to persuade managers to hire these applicants when cost-cutting is a central focus.
"In general, employers are going to be -- especially in this moment -- focused on their bottom line, and the social cost that might come from people with criminal records not having a job isn't reflected on their bottom line," Doleac said.
Before the pandemic, when unemployment was hitting record lows, many employers embraced second-chance hiring as a way to fill openings. When the economy is strong, companies are more likely to take a chance on applicants with records, and the stability of a job can reduce recidivism rates.
Now, with layoffs across the board, crime rates probably will go up. "People have to eat, families need a roof. If they don't have a job, what are they supposed to do?" Bronson said.
For all the challenges, one bright spot for the formerly incarcerated could be work created to deal with the virus outbreak. At the Center for Employment Opportunities, which provides re-entry services in 10 states, there have been new placements in sanitizing and other cleaning positions, said Jovanni Ortiz, the organization's communications manager.
"If there's a tranche of jobs that people don't want to do, that could be an opportunity," said Andrew Glazier, chief executive officer of Defy Ventures, a nonprofit that runs training programs for people with criminal histories, including Hughie, the eyeglasses maker. "But in the long run, I think we're anticipating a substantially slower job market."
Despite economic uncertainty, Glazier, Ortiz and Bronson are more committed than ever to building partnerships with businesses to increase opportunities for the people that go through their programs. They each said employment is the silver bullet to reducing crime among the formerly incarcerated.
"Incarcerated people do need a second chance -- the mass majority of us do," Hughie said. "Let them come back and become a productive member of society instead of falling back into what's not productive."