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People convicted of felonies find more employers open to hiring them

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People convicted of felonies find more employers open to hiring them

In the 25 years that U.S. Rubber Recycling in Colton, Calif., has been grinding up old tires to create new products, its sales have never ballooned so fast as during the COVID-19 pandemic.

As countless fitness centers closed, and millions of people began exercising at home, online demand for the company’s rubber mats and personal gym flooring soared.

But the company had a problem: finding enough workers to fill all the new orders.

That’s where U.S. Rubber’s long practice of hiring former felons paid off, as people like Thomas Urioste came into the picture. In March, the 50-year-old Wrightwood, Calif., man was released from federal prison after serving nearly 10 years. He was living in a halfway house and, like many former prisoners, finding it hard to get a new start.

So when he heard that U.S. Rubber was hiring, he hurried to apply. And instead of being rejected as those with criminal records often are, he got hired practically on the spot.

Six months later, with his salary bumped up to $17 an hour, Urioste can hardly believe how far he’s come. “They took a chance on me, gave me some responsibilities pretty fast. They let me run this ($200,000) machine,” he said last week. “It feels pretty good because they trusted me.”

All across the country, as the economy surges and employers struggle to find enough workers, former prisoners like Urioste are finding a sliver of a silver lining in the dark cloud of the pandemic.

This summer, U.S. employers reported an unprecedented 10.9 million job openings. That was equal to more than one job for every unemployed person in the country.

In response, a growing number of companies are beginning to tap into a huge, largely ignored labor pool: the roughly 20 million Americans, mostly men and many unemployed, who have felony convictions.

A tiny fraction of businesses, including U.S. Rubber Recycling, have long made a point of hiring ex-convicts. And in recent years, California and about a dozen other states have sought to remove some of the discrimination against these job candidates by banning employers from directly asking applicants about criminal records.

But the laws have proved fairly easy to get around. Employers now frequently make background checks for criminal records and probe gaps in applicants’ work histories. Once past problems come to light, the door slams shut.

“Of all people who face challenges in the labor market, those with records are at the end of the queue,” said Shawn Bushway, an economist based in Albany, N.Y., and criminologist at Rand Corp.

Things tend to get a little easier during times of very low unemployment. What’s different this time is that the nation’s jobless rate is not close to rock bottom; it was 5.2% in August and 4.8% in September.

And yet today’s unusually severe labor shortages, reflecting both short- and long-term forces, seem to be opening up opportunities for ex-offenders. Some analysts think that may prove more lasting than in the past.

“Are we in a world where employers really have to start doing something differently?” Harry Holzer, a public policy professor at Georgetown University, asked, noting that businesses already were grappling with declining labor force growth, including the aging of Baby Boomers.

“Maybe, maybe there’s a potential for some win-win — good for these guys and their families and good for employers and the economy.”

Researchers have found that with each successive year that formerly incarcerated persons remain free without committing another crime, the likelihood of their returning to criminal activity declines. And after five to 10 years, that person has no higher probability of committing an offense than someone with no record. Holzer thinks employers are often overly fearful.

More companies are coming to the conclusion that they cannot afford such fears.

Harley Blakeman, chief executive at Honest Jobs, an Ohio-based company that matches employers with people with criminal records, said that in the last few months, seven Fortune 500 companies have signed on as partners, including manufacturer Owens Corning, packaging giant Ball Corp. and the distribution firm Arrow Electronics.

Blakeman said a key challenge is revamping how background checks can disqualify those with convictions without regard to the job. At Honest Jobs, Blakeman said he hired seven people this year, most of them with criminal records, including a woman who applied for an executive assistant position that required handling finances. But her past included two fraud charges, he said, so she was instead offered a job working with employment applicants.

“I told her I cannot give you this job in particular because it’s too risky. That’s good business sense. But what happens is, the person with the fraud charge applies for a warehouse job and gets weeded out. That doesn’t make sense,” Blakeman said.

He founded Honest Jobs in late 2018 after his own struggles finding work while he was on parole after serving 14 months in state prison in Georgia.

While economics are prompting more companies, particularly large ones, to look at workers with convictions, there are countervailing forces holding back such hiring. Many ex-felons, like others on the margins of the labor force, have little education and few skills. And after years in which violent crimes dropped, 2020 saw an increase in violence, led by murders and assaults.

“With (violent) crime rates rising, I think there will be some places where it will be more challenging salesmanship to try to reintegrate ex-offenders. The picture becomes a little bit more untidy,” said Nicholas Eberstadt, a political economy scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and author of “Men without Work.”

Already, people on parole or probation after incarceration, who number more than 4 million, face all kinds of employment and occupation restrictions. Those with felony records are barred from getting licenses for some medical occupations and barbering and beautician services, for example, and convictions may curtail driver’s licenses for trucking and delivery work.

Melvin Price Jr., 41, of Long Beach, Calif., was paroled last September after serving 16 years in federal prison. As part of his release, he said he couldn’t work or “congregate” within 300 feet of a dispensary due to a prior criminal offense. And he has a 10 p.m. curfew, which meant he couldn’t apply for late-night or graveyard jobs at warehouses and other places that were hiring.

In November, Price found work at Chrysalis, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit that helps the homeless and entrenched unemployed. And last week, through Chrysalis, Price landed a job doing landscape work for Caltrans. He’ll make about $3,000 a month.

“I promised that if I ever got another chance, I’d make the most of it,” said Price, whose life as a youth spiraled downward after his mother was murdered in 1992.

While Chrysalis has seen a near-tripling of inquiries from employers this year, there’s no sugarcoating the challenges.

At U.S. Rubber Recycling, where about half of the company’s 65 employees are ex-felons, Chief Executive Jeff Baldassari says the turnover rate for those with convictions is about 25% higher than others without such criminal records.

“They stack up very well when it comes to skills,” he said. “Where the gap lies is the attrition rate. The challenge they have with emotional stability in their lives is critical.

“Many don’t have life-skill lessons — how you deal with relationships. You can’t control their family life and who they hang out with,” he said.

Baldassari, for his part, tries to use the eight hours these employees work for him to provide a lot of training, teamwork building and avoiding what he called a “fishbowl syndrome,” in which certain workers feel they’re being watched and judged because of their records.

The company works closely with staff at halfway houses, and he has hired a psychiatric rehabilitation counselor.

Thermal-Vac Technology Inc. in Orange, Calif., which also routinely brings on people with past criminal offenses and addiction problems, holds weekly Alcoholics Anonymous meetings inside the company and invites parole officers to visit.

“You can hedge your bets, reduce some of the risks,” said Heather Falcone, Thermal-Vac’s chief executive.

Baldassari says his hiring practices have been good for his business, especially now when the competition for labor is stiff, and he says the stories of the workers speak volume about what productive work can mean for turning their lives around.

Carlos Arceo, 39, was hired a little more than two years ago after 10 years in prison in Arizona. Since then, he’s been promoted four times. When the pandemic-induced boom arrived, Arceo became supervisor of a new second shift.

He says he still meets with the company counselor every week or two, but nowadays it’s less about himself than about managing the people under him.

“A lot of the hires are fresh out of prison, just like I was,” he said, adding with a laugh that at the company, it’s not just used tires that are recovered and find new use. “We’re giving people a second chance too.”


©2021 Los Angeles Times. Visit at latimes.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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Boston officials ‘cautiously optimistic’ about coronavirus as new testing clinics open

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Boston officials ‘cautiously optimistic’ about coronavirus as new testing clinics open

Mayor Michelle Wu’s administration is rolling out three new coronavirus testing facilities as officials say they’re “cautiously optimistic” about the direction the omicron-variant-driven surge is now taking.

Wu spoke to reporters in a room of the Bolling building in Roxbury’s Nubian Square where the city is partnering with CIC Health to open what she called a “high-capacity” testing clinic, one of three to start up this week in the city.

The school administration building’s large corner storefront — which is slated to become a jazz club this year — will be open Tuesday through Saturday from noon to 8 p.m. for walk-in COVID tests, with people either able to wait in line or get a card that features a designated time to come back and slide right in. Wu touted the fact that 20 testers will be able to each test one person every three minutes when the place is fully up and running.

This — plus soon-to-come sites in Dorchester and Mattapan, and possibly more elsewhere — is aimed at increasing capacity and cutting down on wait times that boomed along with the current omicron surge.

Wu also announced she’ll be asking the city council to send over $5 million of the federal relief American Rescue Plan Act funding to refuel the city’s small business fund, which has existed for the past couple of years to help local establishments get through the pandemic.

Boston Police Health Commission Executive Director Dr. Bisola Ojikutu — then echoed by Wu — said she’s “cautiously optimistic” about the city’s coronavirus numbers. She said the still-high case counts, positivity rates and emergency-room visits are all dropping. Hospitalizations, which throughout the pandemic have lagged those other metrics by a couple of weeks, do continue to climb, she noted.

This comes just after Wu’s vaccination mandates kicked in on Saturday. Now city workers are required to get the shot or face discipline as soon as next week, and restaurants and other venues are required to ask patrons for proof of vaccination.

The officials said more than 81% of Bostonians now have gotten the vaccine, with many coming in the past week, and more than 1,000 city workers also got the jab since last Monday, bringing compliance up to 95%, according to the city.

Wu, doing a radio hit on GBH just a few minutes after the presser, said, “Vaccination rates across the city have been really jumping in the past week.”

Asked in the press conference if she has contingency plans for if the city has to put large numbers of workers on leave, Wu said, “Far more of our city workforce has been out because of COVID positivity than we anticipate when it comes to a lack of vaccinations.”

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NH gov. questions Massachusetts’ handling of Montgomery case

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NH gov. questions Massachusetts’ handling of Montgomery case

New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu harshly criticized a Massachusetts court on Tuesday for placing Harmony Montgomery, missing since 2019 at age 5, with her father and stepmother before the state could complete a study of their home.

Sununu, in a letter to the chief justice of Massachusetts’ highest court, described the father, Adam Montgomery, as a “monster.” Adam Montgomery has a criminal record that goes back to least 2007 in both states. In Massachusetts, he was previously convicted of shooting someone in the head and a separate armed attack on two women, Sununu wrote.

Sununu asked why the Massachusetts courts went ahead and placed Harmony Montgomery with him. The governor said that at the time the court ruled, New Hampshire’s child protection agency had asked Massachusetts for additional information to complete the home study and would have likely found the father unfit.

“It is unclear why the Massachusetts courts moved so quickly with this permanent placement prior to the completion of the home study. Why would the Massachusetts court choose to place custody of Harmony with this horrible individual? What caused such a fateful decision?” Sununu wrote.

Sununu is requesting the court review the decision and all events leading to the judge’s ruling.

“No child should ever leave Massachusetts in the custody of a dangerous criminal like Adam Montgomery,” Sununu wrote. “We must ensure that, moving forward, at-risk children of our states are protected and adequately monitored.”

Massachusetts Court System Spokesperson Jennifer Donahue said Chief Justice Kimberly Budd received the letter from Sununu and that the Massachusetts Office of the Child Advocate has opened an investigation “into this tragic situation.” The Massachusetts Trial Court, she added, was cooperating fully with that investigation.

Harmony Montgomery was last seen at a Manchester home in October 2019, when she was 5. Manchester police were notified last December that the child had not been seen in two years.

Since then, police have searched the house where she was last seen. Harmony Montgomery’s father and stepmother have been arrested on charges related to her well-being.

Adam Montgomery was arrested on a second-degree assault charge earlier this month, as well as charges of interfering with custody and child endangerment. Police accused him of “purposely violating a duty of care, protection or support” by failing to know where the girl has been since late 2019 — the last reported sighting.

Adam Montgomery, 31, had not guilty pleas entered on his behalf by his lawyer. He has been jailed without bail.

Prosecutors dropped a welfare fraud charge last week against Harmony Montgomery’s stepmother, Kayla Montgomery, for collecting food stamps in the child’s name. The charge was replaced with three other charges, including theft.

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Protestors depart from Michelle Wu’s house — and end up at Ed Flynn’s

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Protestors depart from Michelle Wu’s house — and end up at Ed Flynn’s

There’s been some peace and quiet for a couple of days outside Mayor Michelle Wu’s Roslindale home — because the protestors who’ve been screaming at her about the vaccine mandate trekked across town and began doing so outside Council President Ed Flynn’s house.

Flynn, of South Boston, is now the target of the anti-vaxxers’ ire after a couple of different statements over the weekend in which he decried the tone the demonstrators were taking with Wu outside her house over the mayor’s vaccine mandates.

“A person’s home should be a safe place,” Flynn said in a statement on Tuesday. “Here in Boston and across the country, we are seeing behavior that is crossing the line with the potential to escalate to violence. We need to treat each other with respect and dignity.”

Video shot Tuesday morning, the second in a row in which people have been outside his house, features a woman yelling at the top of her lungs that Flynn, who’s a Navy veteran of Operation Enduring Freedom, is a “communist” and a “traitor.”

This is similar rhetoric that the protestors used with Wu outside her Roslindale home as most days dawned over the past couple of weeks — calling her a communist and, on the morning of her 37th birthday last week, chanting “Happy birthday, Hitler.”

Wu, speaking on the radio on GBH on Tuesday, called these types of chants “hateful language” that’s “quite scary in some ways,” and said protestors had seized on “national right-wing talking points.”

The protestors are taking issue with her vaccine mandate for city workers and the requirement that many Boston venues have to require proof of vaccination. Both of those prongs of the mandate went into effect this week, and the city will begin to place non-compliant city workers on leave next week.

Flynn, whose district includes Southie and Chinatown, on Saturday had been responding to a question about whether his father, the former mayor Raymond Flynn, ever had protestors outside of his house. Yes, Flynn had told reporters, but he said this is a “different level of intensity” and, he added, “I honestly believe some of it is related to an anti-Asian sentiment in this country.”

The protestors hadn’t totally forgotten about Wu, though — a couple of people did show up at her press conference on Tuesday to shout questions about what they characterized as “discrimination” against them and other unvaccinated people over the city’s implementation of vaccine mandates and passports.

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