Tina Hamilton’s Valley Workplaces: The power of a second chance
On June 6, 2018, President Donald Trump commuted the life sentence of Alice Marie Johnson after she served more than two decades in prison.
When the 63-year-old’s clemency decision was announced, the White House said Johnson “has accepted responsibility for her past behavior,” had been a model prisoner, worked hard to rehabilitate herself and served as a mentor to fellow inmates.
Many people have made mistakes in their lives — big mistakes — that have cost them dearly. These mistakes often affect their ability to obtain employment, in some cases for a lifetime. Once an employer sees an applicant has served time in prison, their resume may receive just a quick glance before being put into the “no” file.
Some laws protect applicants from being passed over simply because they are unemployed, or because of nonwork-related criminal offences. But there is no government watchdog to prevent employers from simply not interviewing an applicant in the first place for these reasons.
Assuming they have rehabilitated themselves and are not repeat offenders, is it fair we condemn someone for life for mistakes they made in the past?
We can all offer our own version of clemency by encouraging someone who is working to clean up their life by becoming a mentor to them or by simply showing an ex-offender that we believe in them.
Employers can make a real difference in people’s lives by offering opportunities these folks might not have otherwise — in a manner that protects the best interest of the company, of course.
In seeking local companies who support giving former offenders a chance, I was connected to Jason Hartranft with Nazareth Pallet, a pallet recycling company in Northampton. Hartranft came to Nazareth Pallet nine years ago and, in his search to staff hard-to-fill jobs, quickly realized ex-felons could be an untapped resource.
He found there are ex-felons who are rehabilitated and want to be functioning members of society. The caveat is that most jobs available to them are minimum wage positions. How can they build a future when they are not earning a living wage?
Hartranft discovered over time that he is willing to give the right person a chance. The definition of right person can vary: He tells applicants that their history is just that to him, history. He is not interested in what they did in the past; he is interested in what they can deliver in a particular job now. Hartranft tries to choose people who seem to want to change their direction in life.
Positions at Nazareth Pallet pay based on what the employee delivers in a day’s work. They can earn a base wage of $13 per hour and as high as $23 per hour with bonuses. Hartranft believes at this pay rate they can make a life for themselves, move forward and try to put the past behind them.
Some of these folks may have never worked at a regular job before. They may not understand some basic work rules or ask common questions that another applicant might. For example, some are surprised that paid time off is a real job benefit.
Hartranft’s advice to employers who are considering hiring work release/ex-felons:
- Realize that you will likely need to train life skills in addition to job skills. You might have to help with tasks such as opening a bank account, securing transportation or finding a place to live. It takes a mentoring approach and commitment. But those you help adapt can ultimately become some of your best employees.
- In some cases, you are hiring people with some disabilities due to past drug use or mental health issues. Make sure they’re a good fit for the position.
- Be very clear on the job expectations, but at the same time show that you genuinely care. An empathetic, authentic approach to managing these folks is motivating.
- Know that they may have appointments with probation officers or be required to take classes. You will need to be flexible. If they do not attend these meetings, they can end up back in legal trouble.
Advice he would tell a prospective employee:
- Be present during a job interview. Arrive on time. Leave your phone in the car or turn it off completely. Make eye contact.
- Be honest and up front about your past, but leave your story on the curb. What is relevant is the work you deliver today.
- Tell the employer what you can provide, then provide it. Make your actions match your words.
- Focus on what Hartranft refers to as the three As: “attitude, attendance and ambition.”
- Believe what you are saying to the employer to be true. You want the employer to be a believer in who you want to be.
Hartranft said he feels good about what Nazareth Pallet allows him to do with hiring people looking for a second chance. It is rewarding though it’s not always a success story. Sometimes it is hard for these employees to break the cycle. But when it is broken, he knows he not only served Nazareth Pallet and the employee well, he helped promote change in his community.
This article first appeared in the Lehigh Valley Business Cycle section of The Morning Call on March 6, 2019. The original article can be found here.