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Fair chance hiring gives ex-offenders a chance

Eastern Iowa employers discuss benefits, concerns when hiring person with criminal background

Eastern Iowa employers answer questions Thursday about fair chance hiring practices at the Cedar Rapids Metro Economic A
Eastern Iowa employers answer questions Thursday about fair chance hiring practices at the Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance in Cedar Rapids. The employers talked about the benefits of interviewing and hiring applicants who have criminal convictions. (Grace King/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — Belinda Spaeth was struggling to find a job where she could make a living wage for her and her two children because of her criminal record.

A single mother, she took whatever job was offered — typically minimum wage — and working three jobs to make ends meet.

She was struggling.

“When you’re constantly told ‘no,’ you start giving up,” Spaeth said. “I’ve been homeless, I’ve been in jail because of this barrier (to employment).”

It wasn’t until she was working for DES Employment Group that she felt someone believed in her. She started temping at Stoneking Enterprises, a flooring store, as an office administrator, and 90 days later was offered a full-time job.

“I now have full benefits, I’m making $15 an hour, and I’m about to be promoted to a sales manager,” Spaeth said.

Spaeth no longer worries how she’s going to pay her rent or put food on the table.

She hopes other employers will consider giving people with criminal backgrounds a chance to prove themselves.

“My past does not define me,” Spaeth said during a Fair Chance Hiring panel Thursday at the Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance.

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Fair chance hiring is when a prospective job candidate with a criminal record is not automatically disqualified from hiring consideration and that their qualifications are considered first.

Seven area employers spoke about their fair chance hiring practices to around 50 employers, including asking job candidates about criminal convictions, transportation, the federal bonding program and the risks to hiring ex-offenders.

Fair chance hiring “helps reduce recidivism, improves public safety and helps build a stronger community when more people are able to meaningfully participate,” Linn County Supervisor Stacey Walker said, opening the panel discussion.

Patrice Carroll, ImOn Communications president and CEO, said her company’s hiring policy is to not ask about criminal convictions during their interview process.

When a job offer has been made, the candidate consents to a background check. Carroll said if a background check brings up questions, they bring the candidate back to give them an “opportunity to explain their situation.”

For example, if the candidate is a sex offender, they cannot be hired as field staff for ImOn because the job would require them to work in public spaces like schools and churches. They could, however, work in a supervised position like the customer care center taking phone calls.

“Finding people who are qualified to do a job is so challenging,” Carroll said. “Opening your eyes to a broader pool and trusting that people want to be different is really important.”

Iowa Workforce Development program coordinator Richelle Seitz encouraged employers to consider applying for the federal bonding program, which has been around since the 1950s, and offers business assurance policies when hiring at-risk candidates.

Transportation also can create a barrier for ex-offenders to apply for and keep a job.

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Marcia Swift, volunteer with Reintegration Initiative for Safety and Empowerment, or RISE, said if someone doesn’t have a job, they can’t pay for transportation, and if they can’t pay for transportation, they can’t get a job.

RISE provides one-day bus passes to ex-offenders, so they can spend a day applying for jobs. Once they get a job, RISE provides a 31-day bus pass to get them to their first paycheck.

They also have an arrangement with NewBo Bike Collective, which donates bikes to RISE. Last year, they provided 76 bikes to residents.

DES Employment Group operations manager Julie Redmond, who said she has a criminal background herself, said when placing job-seekers with employers, she abides by the employers policies on ex-offenders.

“I don’t have a perfect past, but if (DES) wouldn’t have taken a chance on me, I wouldn’t have been able to pass that on, to take a chance on someone in the community,” Redmond said.

Comments: (319) 368-8664; grace.king@thegazette.com

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