William Cox, 45, said his job transporting rental cars at O’Hare International Airport saved him. No one else would hire him, and his only other alternative was going back to the life that cost him seven yers in a federal penitentiary. (Photo by Mary Hanlon)

Nearly three out of every five parolees in Illinois are without work—with even higher rates of joblessness on Chicago’s predominantly black South and West sides, according to state corrections data. More than half of all ex-offenders in the state wind up back behind bars within three years of release.

Few dispute that employment is the most important factor in keeping ex-felons from returning to prison. But advocates say that most employers are still just too scared to hire them. “You hear our clients … talking about the proverbial ‘X’ on their backs and the stigma that that ‘X’ on their backs carries,” said Dorothy Bolden, director of employment services at the Safer Foundation, the state’s largest program for ex-offenders. Based in the West Loop, the organization helps connect nearly 3,000 ex-offenders with jobs at more than 300 firms each year.

Recent state legislation allows ex-offenders to conceal some misdemeanors and work in jobs that were once closed to them. Agencies that work with ex-offenders have stepped up their job-readiness training. And advocates have widely publicized federal government incentives, like tax credits, for companies that take chances on ex-cons.

But the federal benefits, established to make hiring ex-offenders a safer and more profitable proposition, have failed to drum up much excitement. Fewer than 1,000 ex-felons statewide work under the tax-credit program, according to state data. And just a few companies have applied for insurance to help cover losses that might result from having ex-felons on the payroll.

Even companies that hire ex-offenders don’t want many others to know about it, fearful of public relations nightmares. More common are employers who turn to criminal background checks to filter out such workers from the start; the number of checks performed by state police hit at a 20-year high this year.

Even the term “ex-offender” gives many people “the worst image,” said Roberta Meyers-Peeples, deputy director for the National H.I.R.E. Network. The New York City-based group works to change public policies and public opinion to increase job opportunities for the formerly incarcerated. “The most serious violent acts come to mind,” she said. “I think that’s where people get stuck. It just changes everything.”
Employers said they must be cautious.

“One of the biggest problems retailers face these days is employee theft,” said Rob Karr, vice president of government and member relations for the Illinois Retail Merchants Association, a statewide group of more than 23,000 stores, including retail chains such as Wal-Mart, Jewel-Osco and Walgreens. Despite the problem, Karr said, the retail industry has been a longtime employer of ex-offenders. “They’re more than willing to give people a chance,” he said. “They just like to do it with their eyes open.”

For more than 10 years, Nancy Behrendt has worked with the Safer Foundation, but still asks that her nationally known firm not be publicly identified because she believes some customers will be turned off by the prospect of workers who are ex-offenders.

The Chicago-based company has employed as many as 50 ex-offenders at a time during its busiest season, she said. They mostly work in factory, clerical, data entry or customer service positions. Behrendt said none has ever caused a major problem, and they’re more motivated and better overall temporary employees.

Getting her colleagues to agree hasn’t been easy. At a conference of more than 200 human resources officers, she heard a gasp when she talked about her company’s policy of hiring ex-offenders; some participants called her insane and warned her about liability issues.
She got similar reactions inside the company, with one manager accusing Behrendt of putting “her life in danger” by making such hires.

While Behrdent doesn’t think employers should be scared off by a worker’s criminal conviction, she said they should definitely know the backgrounds of people they hire. “I don’t want to put an embezzler in accounting,” she said.

The criminal background check has become standard operating procedure for many of Chicago’s largest employers; nearly 20 companies surveyed by The Chicago Reporter perform them regularly. And they usually enlist outside help. While dozens of private companies statewide offer background checking services, many citizens, employers, school districts and government agencies rely on the Illinois State Police, said Master Sgt. Rick Hector, a state police spokesman. And requests are rising: So far this year, state police have conducted 707,544 checks, the most since it began performing them in 1984. The agency conducted 546,015 checks in 2003.

Companies have a range of standards for determining whether to hire workers with criminal records. The power company Exelon, which employs about 6,600 workers in the Chicago area, has hired ex-offenders, according to S. Gary Snodgrass, executive vice president and chief human resources officer. The company is the nation’s largest nuclear operator and the parent company of ComEd.

“We don’t preclude it, but it might require special approval,” by executives on a case-by-case basis, Snodgrass said.

HSBC-North America, one of the world’s largest financial services firms, does not hire ex-offenders in general but makes exceptions on occasion, said James Pieper, a spokesman for the company, which employs about 1,300 people at its headquarters in northwest suburban rospect Heights.

Some companies are more deliberate. Advocate Health Care’s Trinity Hospital hires expoffenders through a program of the North Lawndale Employment Network, according to Mike Maggio, a spokesman for the company, which employs 25,000 in the Chicago area. The program has sent ex-offenders to handle maintenance duties at the Southeast Side hospital, one of the company’s eight hospitals.

Believing financial help would draw more employers, the Safer Foundation developed brochures highlighting the federal Work Opportunity Tax Credit and other incentives, and mailed them to more than 200,000 Illinois companies—mostly small businesses.

The Internal Revenue Service awards up to $2,400 in tax credits to businesses when they hire low-income ex-felons. Companies can also receive credits for employees who are former welfare recipients, veterans, food stamp recipients and low-income youth, among others.

To qualify, employers must apply to the state. In 2003, Illinois companies sought certification for 61,178 employees, but just 24,598—about 41 percent—were approved for the tax credits. Of those approved, 992 were ex-felons, up from 856 the year before.

Companies can also get up to $5,000 in federal bonding insurance to cover any losses incurred from hiring ex-offenders. But just 14 of the policies were issued statewide in fiscal year 2004, which ended June 30.

Advocates say increasing the benefits and programs may be one of the only ways to increase participation. “We want to get out more information about these programs and, at the same time, where possible, see if they can be enhanced,” said Sharron Matthews, director of public policy and advocacy at Safer, which has been working with legislators at all levels.

For years, Lessie Mobley (above) has hired ex-offenders for her vehicle transport company, believing they deserve a second chance. (Photo by Mary Hanlon)

Training the would-be workers themselves, however, remains a critical part of all major ex-offender employment programs in Chicago. Besides helping ex-offenders learn how to search the Internet for jobs, prepare resumes and dress for interviews, they coach them extensively on answering the one application question many of them dread the most: “Have you ever been convicted of a felony?”

“Sometimes dealing with that question can be the choker even when they’re in a shirt and tie,” said Bolden of the Safer Foundation. Despite that, she said, the agency instructs ex-offenders to come clean. “Truth is the only way.”

But they are also instructed to note on their applications that they will discuss details of their convictions during interviews, in the hopes that employers will listen before turning them away.

During an October session at the Safer Foundation, nearly 20 clients took turns playing the roles of applicant and employer in mock interviews. Speak up and make eye contact, instructors Susette Ross-Taylor and Jay T. Santana kept reminding them.

Released from prison in 2002 after serving four years for computer fraud, Santana can relate to many of his students. Even with two master’s degrees, Santana ran into deadends when finding work. “I couldn’t get a job at McDonald’s,” he said.

The main challenge, he told the class, is answering questions about the past. “If you’re not comfortable talking about your conviction, you cannot expect someone to be comfortable listening to it.” But most in the class struggled with those questions, sometimes hanging their heads or lowering their voices. Even during the mock interviews, some ex-offenders admitted they were nervous, and that it never gets easy to talk about their past mistakes.

One, 48-year-old Bennie Therrell, admitted he had been lying about his armed robbery conviction on every application. Billie Rogers, 36, said he would often “freeze” when employers asked about his drug and burglary convictions. And Mytra Taylor, 50, said employers make her feel self-conscious about her drug conviction. “It seems like they always look at you funny,” she said. “You feel like you’re not being a productive citizen.”

Most agreed the classes have helped. “Once you get this info, it gives you hope that you can sell yourself,” Rogers said.

Ex-offenders must also avoid describing their years behind bars as a gap in work history. “Those aren’t lost years,” said Sandi Brown, who runs Affirmation House, a West Side housing and job training program for ex-offenders through which she picks up former inmates from the prison gates when they’re released.

In addition to attending training programs in prison, many ex-offenders have done laundry, mixed cleaning compounds, made cabinets, mopped floors, or done landscaping at the Illinois State Fair, Brown said. “Some have never had a job on the street, but … you’d think they worked at Caterpillar.”

Danta Triplet (right) yalks with Leroy Jenkins during a mock interview in a job-readiness class for ex-offenders at the Safer Foundation. (Photo by Jason Reblando)

As an employment specialist, Safer’s Cleve Dixon pitches himself as a full-service employment agency that can make life easier for any recruiter or human resources officer considering hiring an ex-offender. “You don’t have to interview. You don’t have to drug-test. I will do all that,” he tells employers. Dixon also serves as an intermediary when problems arise, noting that most companies would have to pay thousands to search firms, temp agencies and employment brokers for similar services.

It can be a tough job. He said half of his calls go nowhere.

But linking ex-offenders with jobs is just the beginning, said Sheila Lambropoulos, another Safer employment specialist. “There’s so much work, not just in getting employers to hire them, but getting our people to stay there. That’s an issue in itself.”

The first 30 days are the most critical for ex-offenders, nearly half of whom will quit, get fired or lose their jobs for other reasons during that time. Bolden, Safer’s director of employment services, said 54 percent of Safer’s clients who are placed in jobs are still with those same employers 30 days later.

Most employers aren’t tolerant of workers who are repeatedly late or who don’t show up for work without calling to inform their supervisors—typical missteps for those who don’t make it past 30 days, said Lambropoulos.

Of those who make it through the first month, about 67 percent remain in those same jobs for another two months, according to Bolden. And about half of those who survive the first month remain for another five. Many of those who leave after that have found positions with better hours, wages or benefits, she said.

Through its “Welcome Home” program, Bethel New Life hires ex-offenders for eight-week internships. The 25-year-old faith-based agency, which focuses on job training and community organizing on Chicago’s West Side, trains ex-offenders and places them in jobs in-house that complement their skills and match available private-sector positions. Bethel also assists with their full-time job searches and provides references once the internships end. So far, the agency has helped nearly 35 ex-offenders find permanent jobs, while about five have stayed on with Bethel New Life.

Part of the challenge is the market itself. “Customer service, hospitality—those are jobs that traditionally have been available to people who have come out of the system, but the economy has taken away a lot of jobs in those areas,” said Steven McCullough, the agency’s chief operating officer. “In West Garfield Park, we do have a light manufacturing base, but they’re small mom-and-pop manufacturers, and those owners don’t live in the community. –¦ They’re less readily willing to employ individuals from the community, especially individuals that are coming out of the system.”

Lessie Mobley, however, has hired ex-offenders for years.

“Everybody deserves a second chance,” said Mobley, who runs Transport World, a business based in south suburban Calumet Park that transports vehicles for car dealers and rental car companies.

Along the way, though, she’s had second thoughts. “But I knew I couldn’t give up on them,” said Mobley, adding that most of the ex-offenders she’s hired have turned out to be good employees. “They tell me how much they appreciate the job.”

William Cox certainly does. He started working for Mobley in August after searching for work for a year.

Cox said he was about ready to give up on the job hunt and go back to what he knew best: the drug game, which had landed him in a federal penitentiary for seven years. He didn’t think employers could ever see past his conviction—one even admitted he’d hire him on the spot if not for his record.

“You couldn’t imagine how tough that was,” Cox said. “You’re letting these people know you’ve changed. They’ll sit up there and listen and as soon as they get done with the interview, they say, ‘I’m sorry.’ –¦. That’ll break your heart every time.”

Ultimately, reducing the number of interactions like this will depend on more business leaders coming to the table with advocates and workers such as Cox, said Walter Boyd, director of the Repatriate Opportunity Program at Protestants for the Common Good, a Chicago-based social justice organization.

Partly in recognition of that divide, Mayor Richard M. Daley created a staff position last year to focus exclusively on the issue. His office has also launched a number of initiatives to assist those already working with ex-offenders and to recruit others.

This year, the mayor’s office provided nearly $1 million to ex-offender training programs on the South and West sides and convened a caucus of business, church and government leaders to talk with ex-offenders and service providers about these issues.

The city also partners with the North Lawndale Employment Network to get ex-offenders jobs in landscaping, bee-keeping and honey-farming and with the Chicagoland Youth and Adult Training Center to get them working in the automotive service industry.

An intensive 11-month program based at Kennedy-King College, the center wasn’t intended to aid ex-offenders when it began in 2000, but some of the nearly 40 people who have graduated have criminal backgrounds, said Tom Hawkes, co-founder of the program and president of Hawk Lincoln-Mercury in south suburban Oak Lawn. “We just try to point out to these employers that we got some kids that do a pretty good job. When we get done with them they’re a lot different,” said Hawkes, noting that only one in five people complete the program successfully. “They want it bad –¦ because we don’t make it easy.”

Many advocates agree that putting more ex-offenders to work will have far-reaching effects. “If you want to reduce drug activity, gang activity, homelessness, domestic violence and abuse, you’ve got to give people some jobs,” said Bethel New Life’s McCullough.

“There is a growing consciousness in the general public about these issues,” McCullough added. “I just hope that employers are able to take some courage from that and be more bold and be more out front in their employment activities.”

Efren Arcos and Josh Kantarski helped research this article.

Alden is the senior editor of WBEZ's race, class and communities desk. Previously, he served as the director of research and evaluation for the Metropolitan Planning Council, investigator and later as...