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Finding work for ex-felons


Angel Barerra has a felony conviction. He thinks that’s kept him from finding work. In order to give people like Barerra a better chance, some California counties have implemented “Ban the Box” – they’ve made it illegal for employers to ask about felony charges on job applications.

Alameda and San Francisco counties started banning the box in the hopes that private companies would also sign on, but they haven’t. And now that the state’s realignment plan is reducing our prison population, this means there are even more former offenders out there looking for work.

“Most of the jobs I’ve gotten I didn’t put that I have a felony because when I first went to jail and got out I was putting  down on the applications and no one was calling me back,” Barerra says. 

When I meet Barerra, the first thing he does is apologize for his stained work shirt and scuffed up leather boots.

“I couldn’t come sharp, it’s hard core. If you don’t respect the metal it will bite you,” he smiles.

Barerra is a metal worker for the Local 104 Sheet Metal union.  He’s been there just a few weeks. We meet in downtown Oakland, in a classroom in the offices of America Works, the for-profit company that helped Barerra get this new job.

He smiles and sits down next to another man. They haven’t met before, but they’ve seen each other in passing in the building. We do introductions.

Damien Stuart tells me that he came to America works seven months ago.

“Every jobsite they sent me to I was hired,” Stuart says.

Stuart’s also an ex-offender. This classroom is where he and Barerra learned to make resumés and took courses in anger management – where they were offered interview clothes and BART passes. They needed help finding work because of what they have in common: criminal records.

A lot of organizations want to help people like Barerra and Stuart when they’re released from prison. There are dozens of nonprofits and government groups that do things like counseling and job skills training. America Works is the only company that will actually get them a job. Theresa Castor is the person who finds those jobs.

Castor used to work in sales, so she knows how to sell. And she needs all of her skills. She makes cold calls to employers – just gets on the phone and starts asking questions about openings. She’s kind of like a recruiter, except all of her clients are ex-offenders.

Castor has a couple things on her side: employers can earn tax breaks up to $40,000 for hiring people with criminal records and they can apply for a bond – a kind of insurance in case there’s theft on the job. Still, she says pitching convicted felons as viable job candidates is tough. She says a typical message sounds something like this:

“I would like talk to someone in charge of the hiring. I would like to let you know that we are working with Alameda County to assist them with employment for people who have been formerly incarcerated. We are working with these people who are ready to work and are hard working people aside from the fact that they’ve been in trouble before they only need employers to work with them and give them a second chance. They are well trained and ready to work.”

Getting a stable job is a huge step towards reintegrating into the community. But ex-felons often face other issues – they live in dangerous neighborhoods or they’re around a lot of crime. Those cases are the hardest, Castor says. She remembers one lady that she helped find a job.

“ I found her a job at BevMo and she found her own apartment I gave her my stuff that I don’t use, I didn’t hear from her and her sister called and said she got shot,” Castor recalls.

That’s an extreme situation, but America Works is used to clients with difficult histories. They’re a national company, and in other states, they focus on finding jobs for people who are homeless or have disabilities.

In Alameda County they’ve got a $500,000 contract to place at least 250 ex-felons in jobs within one year. So far they’ve placed about 100 in retail jobs, warehousing, restaurants, landscaping, and construction.

Matt Ericksen is the company’s Oakland  Director.

“This job is a series of successes and failures,” says Ericksen.  “I tell the staff, sometimes it feels like we are spinning our wheels, sometimes all they need to do is show up and they don’t.”  

If they don’t show up to their new jobs, America Works doesn’t get paid. The company invoices the county every time they get someone a job. But for the money to come through, 60 percent of the people they place have to remain employed for six months.  Ericksen says that too often, no one checks to see if job-training programs actually lead to jobs.

“It always surprises me the standards that are met and not met. I certainly think standards need to be higher. There needs to be more accountability in the outcomes. 

All of the organizations have the same goal: to lower the recidivism rate. The best way to do it is still a debate. Frank Williams works for San Francisco’s nonprofit Senior Ex-offenders Program. He says even when ex-offenders do get jobs it’s sometimes hard to keep them.

Williams says, “As far as linking them up with a job, we’ve found that doesn’t work. They don't keep them – they might be on a job for a month or two and they quit, because of no purpose they don’t know how to work,  still have low self esteem, feel like they’re not worthy or something, just uninspired. So we have to find a way to get them motivated, and some of that is sending them to trainings.”

Those trainings, he says, are a better use of the program’s resources. On its website, the county lists at least 21 other organizations that offer job placement for ex offenders. But none of them actually guarantee work, like the senior ex-offenders program, they offer training and classes. And even that’s not a guarantee. When I called around, a few of the numbers weren’t even working.

America Works sometimes competes with 30 to 50 organizations when a new contract is posted. But the current contract was awarded to the company directly – no competitive bidding. John Keene, Deputy Chief Probation officer at Alameda County, says that’s because America Works is the only organization that can guarantee active job placement.                

Back in the classroom, Angel Barerra says he still worries about the temptation to fall back into the same routines that first landed him in jail.

“I was so stressed out before I got out because I was scared,” he explains. “I was scared because I thought, I really want to do good but when I get to the streets it’s like a whole different thing.

Barerra and Damien Stuart are trading stories of what finding work has been like for them. Stuart remembers one of his first jobs out of a seven-year prison sentence. He worked on the campaign ballot measures in 2012, explaining propositions 30 and 32, that dealt with California state tax increases.

“And it passed,” smiles Stuart, “It did feel awesome. It did feel awesome. Going door to door and letting people know what was going on. To have someone come out who look like you or talk like you or whatever we just need someone to talk to you and be real.”

When that job ended he decided to go back to school, where he’s studying media.

Meanwhile, Angel Barerra says his new employer, the steel working company, never asked him about his past. That’s because America Works had already contacted them, so they knew that he served time in prison. When he’s at work he doesn’t volunteer any information about his felony charges to his co-workers. He’d rather just move forward.

“I used to lie on my applications all of the time,” says Barerra, “but now every application I fill out I put, ‘will explain,’ but what that gave me is more confidence. Even if you don’t get the job, it’s a real good mental thing for you. It’s like, I have changed and I have accepted my faults and I did my time and here you go I’m ready to get back into this community.

The Alameda County Sheriff’s Office estimates that realignment will send about 47 new inmates to the county jail each month.

That’s where they’ll finish their sentences – before long, they’ll be released. This month, the county is sending a public Request for Proposals, out to organizations that could help those people find jobs – $1.75 million is up for grabs. The county says organizations will be required to offer follow up services, and to guarantee that a certain number of their clients actually remain employed.