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Why some Iowa companies are willing to hire former criminals

Jul 16, 2019 at 6:00 am
    Former T&D Repair employee Travis Heckenberg of Burlington sits by the box of loaner tools that allowed him to take a job as a mechanic at the shop after serving time in prison. Heckenberg now owns his own business working on motorcycles. Photographed on Thursday, May 9, 2019. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)

    Travis Heckenberg did not own any tools when he first came to work for T&D Repair in Burlington a few years ago.

    The 47-year-old Burlington resident did, however, carry a conviction for manufacturing methamphetamine and other crimes, including assault and burglary.

    Heckenberg attributed his criminal past to “falling in with the wrong people” and said he resolved to turn his life around while serving a 33-and-a-half-month prison sentence. That was after losing his house, his wife and “everything I built up my entire life.”

    A loaner toolbox and a second chance from T&D Repair helped Heckenberg successfully re-enter his community as a law-abiding resident. Today he is self-employed and customizes motorcycles for a living.

    Analysts interviewed for this report say Iowa’s employers could see similar results, and more easily fill vacant positions, if more of them followed T&D’s lead and open their doors to former prison inmates-turned-job seekers.

    With the state’s unemployment rate lodged at just 2.4 percent as of May 2019, the number of resumes sent in to employers is shrinking, leaving businesses with fewer options for filling key positions.

    Iowa employers had 69,994 job openings listed as of May with Iowa Jobs, a database Iowa Workforce Development oversees, for a variety of positions such as retail, repair workers, truck drivers and food servers.

    State data shows about 40,700 Iowans were unemployed in April 2019.

    But a mix of legal and personal concerns keep some employers from turning to candidates with criminal backgrounds as a solution to their workforce needs, the analysts say.

    But representatives from other businesses, where officials have taken a more individualized approach with job seekers, say those concerns largely are unfounded, and the reward far outweighs the risk when it comes to hiring such candidates.

    The red tape treatment

    After leaving prison, Heckenberg recalled undergoing about 30 interviews over a two-year period before landing the job with T&D Repair.

    “If they didn’t know my criminal history (during most job interviews), I had no problem talking with anybody or being friendly,” he said. “Once they find out you have a criminal history, they just shun you.”

    Heckenberg’s experience is far from unique among former inmates.


    Edward Ailey-Roberson, 61, of Ankeny, said he has become content as a stay-at-home husband after a lack of success in finding a long-term job, since his position at a window supplier was eliminated in April 2016.

    The trilingual former Marine said he still has motivation to work, but his experience in interviews leads him to believe he has “the right skills in the wrong package.”

    “If I said ‘voluntary manslaughter,’ that application was balled up and thrown in the trash, regardless of whether we talked (in an interview) or not,” Ailey-Roberson said.

    Ailey-Roberson pleaded guilty to that charge in September 2009, following a house party fight where he punched a man and knocked him to the concrete, resulting in the man’s death.

    During his approximately four and a half years of incarceration, Ailey-Roberson said he turned to God to fill what he described as a “void” that had opened in his life. Since leaving prison, he said he has not fought, gotten drunk or had any police interaction.

    “We just need to take a different point of view of what a felon is,” Ailey-Roberson said. “Yeah, he’s made a mistake, but he’s also forgivable. God forgave us, and he talks about that.”

    ‘A transformation’

    As director of the not-for-profit America’s Job Honors Program, based in Des Moines, Kyle Horn highlights people and companies that defy barriers to employment. In 2016, Horn wrote a series of questions for a survey on employer attitudes toward hiring candidates with criminal backgrounds, which Iowa Workforce Development distributed to thousands of companies as part of its annual Workforce Needs Assessment.

    Though the state agency never published the results, Horn said he found the answers noteworthy in terms of measuring employers’ most pressing concerns about hiring former inmates.

    Out of 5,973 Iowa employers, the largest plurality — at 1,504 companies, or 25.4 percent of respondents — answered that they were concerned about potential liability for negligent hiring, if an ex-offender were to harm a co-worker or a client.

    The next most recurring concern, for 1,317 or 22.4 percent of responding companies, was potential non-compliance with industry standards or government regulations. That was followed by the concern for damage to the company’s reputation, for 1,194 or 20.2 percent of companies.

    Out of 9,761 state employers, 3,595 companies, or 36.9 percent, had either a formal or “unwritten” policy prohibiting or restricting them from hiring applicants with certain criminal convictions. An additional 1,599 companies, or 16.4 percent, were not sure, while the remaining 4,567 companies, or 46.8 percent, had no such policy.

    Horn said he believes that, unless candidates can demonstrate that they have “undergone a transformation,” an employer could reasonably conclude their past behavior will continue and legitimately reject them.


    But other employers, Horn said, might indiscriminately reject all candidates with criminal backgrounds to “over-comply” and avoid any legal risk, or because of decades-old company tradition.

    “In many cases, there are policies against hiring returning citizens that came down from the ivory tower decades ago, and those policies arose in an entirely different environment, with employment rates at twice their current levels,” Horn said.

    Frontier Co-op CEO Tony Bedard said his Norway-based company is open to hiring candidates with criminal backgrounds, with a few exceptions — for example, convicted sex offenders could not be hired because of the company’s on-site child care.

    Bedard said Frontier Co-op has had great success in recruiting at events geared toward connecting employers and ex-offenders, including Second Chance job fairs, but some companies might just attend the events to “check a box.”

    Ex-offenders previously have told recruiters that Frontier was one of the few companies that showed legitimate interest in hiring them from such events, Bedard said.

    “I found that kind of striking but that being said, it is a big jump for companies,” Bedard said, of hiring candidates with criminal backgrounds. “A lot of people are conservative, and it’s going to take time for a lot of these kind of things to take hold.”

    Cut-and-dried human resources policies and the stigma around ex-offenders often are the biggest barriers to more companies hiring those candidates, said Dane Sulentic, apprenticeship coordinator for the Iowa Department of Corrections.

    While Sulentic said he can understand employers’ hesitance, depending on the offenses, the companies ought to “dig deeper” and judge candidates on a case-by-case basis — and as a resource for meeting Iowa’s workforce needs rather than as a last stop.

    “Now, with the (unemployment) rate so low, you have to start looking outside the box,” Sulentic said. “I think what they (the companies) are starting to realize is, ‘Wow, there are really skilled individuals in here that, even if we’re not hiring, we need to stay in contact ... . Maybe we don’t have something open right now, but in a couple of months, we could.’”

    An alternate approach

    More Americans have found themselves on the wrong side of the law than one might assume.

    Approximately 70 million Americans, or close to one in three adults, have some type of arrest record, the National Employment Law Project estimates.

    Approximately 2.3 million people are locked up nationwide, across federal and state prisons and local jails, the Prison Policy Initiative think tank found in 2018. Federal statistics show at least 95 percent of state prisoners will be released at some point.

    Iowa’s nine prisons had 8,483 inmates as of June 21, with an additional 40,678 people involved in community-based corrections, including probation, parole or other special sentences.

    T& D Repair owner David Dingman said he started his business 14 years ago after suffering a workplace injury and undergoing surgery. Told he would never again work as a mechanic, Dingman remained unemployed for about a year-and-a-half before deciding to open a small repair shop so he could teach others.

    Dingman said he always has hired people who similarly might not have had “a fighting chance” at finding a job because they are “frowned upon or handicapped” in some way. This has included a number of ex-offenders over the years, including five members of his current 14-person repair crew, he said.

    Dingman is willing to give any ex-offender a chance regardless of their charges, starting at $15 an hour for a few weeks, “as long as they’re willing to learn from their mistake and move forward.”

    “Now, if they’re riding that fence, and they don’t know, I tell them don’t bother,” he added. “I always tell people, ‘The hand I offer you up is connected to the foot that’s going to put you back in jail if you ever so much as think about reviolating.’”

    But aside from one or two employees who violated parole conditions, Dingman said he has not had any problems with his hires.

    Employing ex-offenders, and training them while they’re in prison, also reduces their likelihood of returning to prison, said Tim Diesburg, who helped found Iowa’s prison apprenticeship program at the Anamosa prison in 2014.

    “If we lock (the inmates) up and don’t do anything with them, they get out and victimize someone again,” Diesburg said.

    “The best way to help a victim is to help that person (the inmate) never victimize anybody again. It’s a really good feeling to be able to accomplish.”

    In fiscal 2018, state officials recorded a 37.8 percent recidivism rate for Iowa inmates returning to prison within three years of a previous release.

    That year, the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics found, across 30 states including Iowa, 68 percent of released state inmates were rearrested within three years, with the rate rising to 79 percent and 83 percent over six and nine years, respectively.

    Michael Willoughby, 34, did not go back to prison after serving a 14-year sentence for armed robbery. Rather, he landed a job at Frontier Co-op before his sentence ended, after graduating with the highest GPA in state apprenticeship program history.

    Willoughby now is married and with a young child, and owns a house and cars in Marion, because of the second chance he was afforded.

    “They ignored that aspect” of his background during interviews at Frontier Co-op, he said. “It was different because I’m used to the impersonal approach of being just ‘the convict’ or ‘the inmate with the record.’ I was treated in a rather human fashion, which was very uplifting.”

    Sean Rambow, 18, of Burlington, was set to serve a week in jail in mid-May for unlawfully carrying a firearm, and then return to work at T&D Repair, where he started employment in the middle of his legal process.

    “I’ve been here about a month, and I’ve learned quite a bit and changed my life around for the better,” Rambow said.

    “I’m not doing anything stupid anymore. ... This job means the world to me.”

    The bill opens doors

    Encouraging “second-chance hiring” of people with criminal records has stood out as a priority for state officials this year.

    Gov. Kim Reynolds signed House File 650 in April, following unanimous votes from state senators and representatives, to set a safeguard for private employers that hire ex-offenders.

    Employers now are protected from lawsuits based solely on an employee’s past conviction, with exceptions for violent offenses and crimes the employee committed while performing duties “substantially similar” to those of their new job.

    “This bill opens doors for Iowans who deserve a second chance by protecting the job creators extending a helping hand,” Reynolds said at the time.

    Both the state and federal government already offer tax incentives to businesses that hire former inmates.

    Iowa employers can deduct 65 percent of an ex-offender’s first 12 months of wages from their state income taxes, with a maximum deduction of up to $20,000 per employee.

    State businesses also can net $2,400 per ex-felon through a federal Work Opportunity Tax Credit, provided they’re hired within a year of being convicted or released from prison, and insure themselves up to $5,000 for the employee’s first six months on the job through the Federal Bonding Program.

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