Photo by Kathryn Decker/Creative Commons
Ronald Day remembers vividly the first time he was denied a job because of his criminal record. He was called in for an interview. The hiring manager asked him about the specifics of his resume. “All of the skills needed for the job, I acquired in prison,” Day replied. Day had served almost three years in Marcy Correctional Facility in the 1990s after being convicted of third-degree, or statutory, rape.
“As soon as I told her that, the interview changed completely,” says Day, now 44. “I left the interview thinking: I’ll never hear back about this job.”
And he didn’t.
For many ex-offenders trying to reenter the workforce, discrimination by employers is far too common. Finding and retaining a job is one of the most difficult challenges someone reintegrating into society must overcome, yet a job is what they most need. That’s why Mayor Bill de Blasio signed into law the Fair Chance Act , New York City’s version of “ban-the-box” legislation, which went into effect at the end of October. And some advocates and former prisoners think it might help.
The Fair Chance Act strengthens Correction Law Article 23-A, which bars employment discrimination because of criminal records. Specifically, the law prohibits employers from making inquiries about an applicant’s pending arrest or criminal conviction record until after the offer of employment is made. It also bans job ads that say “no felonies” or “must pass background check.” Finally, it outlaws any application questions about criminal history and any questions about criminal history during job interviews.
Alyssa Aguilara, political director at VOCAL NY, helped draft the Act. She said ex-offenders face a disproportionately difficult process of obtaining employment. “Over the years, this stigma has existed that interferes with an ex-offender’s quality of life,” Aguilara said. “It’s this idea that incarceration is wrong and immoral. Even with 23-A, employers were still asking about criminal history and there was a presumption of discrimination against ex-offenders.”
Since the Act was signed into law, ex-offenders like Carlos (who asked us not to use his last name to help protect his job prospects) have begun applying for jobs they once thought out of their reach. Carlos served 30 years in prison for second-degree murder and first-degree kidnapping.
“I’ve accepted responsibility, and I’m trying to move on,” Carlos, 62, said. The new law “allows me the chance to sit down with an employer and explain myself later.”
Wesley Caines, an attorney at the Brooklyn Defenders, devotes his work to helping ex-offenders who have been discriminated against by prospective employers. He sees the law as potentially effective. “This is another tool in the box to allow employers to be held accountable,” he said. “There’s a start and an end to punishment, and once it’s ended there’s no justifiable reason to keep a person from taking care of themselves and their families.”
Caines said employers who refuse to hire an ex-offender do so out of ignorance. “Some of these ex-offenders are the most hardworking and loyal employees, but all that these employers see are the criminal records,” he said. “Employers are concerned about violence at their establishments.”
The new law is not a panacea, though. In spite of the law, many ex-offenders applying for jobs say their resumes include tell-tale signs of their prior convictions. “When I came home, I couldn’t put anything on my resume that I had done before I went into the prison,” Day said. “I had to put only what I had done inside the facility.”
Examples of some of those jobs inside the prisons, also known as apprenticeships, include substance abuse counselor, HIV counselor, and general counselor.
Carlos, who was a television and radio technician before his sentence, is in the process of writing his resume. He said he listed his four prison apprenticeships on it. “I worked 2,000 hours at each apprenticeship,” Carolos said. “That’s 8,000 hours total and then I have my Master’s degree in social science. But the market is tough, and I have to compete with younger guys.”
And Day said the structure of the prison work system easily provides hints about who has been incarcerated because of gaps in employment on resumes. “If a person has a cap on their resume of two years on each job, that’s an indication they’ve been in prison,” he said. “Or you list your work location as Fishkill, and the first thing [employers] think of is the prison there.”
So far, nineteen states have enacted fair chance policies. Four of those states—Hawaii, Massachusetts, Minnesota, and Rhode Island—have extended the policy to outlaw the conviction history question on job applications for private employers.
In Brooklyn, Caines said the next step forward is education for employers about the law. “We want employers to know that they still have rights, they still have control,” he said. “A lot of employers need education to know that someone coming home from the system has already been punished for what they did, and perpetual punishment isn’t fair.”
Aguilara said she’s confident the law will provide fair rights for all. “When [ex-offenders] come home, they need a job, they need a chance at real opportunities to rebuild their lives,” she said. “This act gives them those basic rights. And that’s long overdue.”