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Finding a Job in Fort Worth With a Criminal Record Isn’t Easy

Advocates are pushing for “clean slate” legislation, which would expunge criminal records for people with low-level or non-violent crimes. But until reform happens, these groups are helping to secure second chances.

(TNS) — The path to finding a well-paying job to provide for herself and family hasn't been the easiest for Natasha Barber. She works at a fast food restaurant making $13.25 an hour, but dreams of being an artist or a counselor for those with substance use disorders.

Her past has created many hurdles toward her dream job. Barber, of Fort Worth, Texas, has found that having multiple convictions for prostitution, drug possession and robbery has turned some potential employers away.

"Hire us, we are good workers. You will be able to tell if we are not good workers," Barber said. "If I worked for a whole week for a roll of toilet paper in prison, why would I not come out and do anything better?"

Barber is among thousands of people in Texas struggling to find a job because of a criminal record. Some companies are hesitant to hire people with criminal records due to the stigma or requirements by some commercial insurance companies who will not cover a business if they have an employee with a criminal record.

Advocates and business leaders are pushing for "clean slate" legislation reform in Texas and across the country. The legislation would expunge criminal records for people with low-level or non-violent crimes. It could help many of the 250,000 people in Texas jails or prisons land on their feet after they serve their sentence.

Nikki Presley, Texas state director for Right on Crime, said "second-chance" hiring can help people with criminal records become taxpaying citizens. Second-chance hiring led JP Morgan Chase & Co. to hire 2,100 people with a criminal record in 2020.

"If we are not allowing people a second chance to get a job, that's step one," Presley said. "A job and housing are your basic needs being met. I think it is important for people to open their minds to second chance hiring."

Reentry in Tarrant County

Every year, nearly 5,000 people are released in Tarrant County, according to Andre Johnson, the reentry services director for First Stop Center of Tarrant County.

While staying at a halfway house, Barber learned of a reentry agency that was able to help guide her during the transition. The Fort Worth nonprofit, Opening Doors For Women in Need, has helped women since 2003.

The organization works to help women learn how to be financially independent and provides resources, like housing and spiritual guidance, to help them heal from pain and other trauma.

"That program was the best thing that happened to me because I was so low at that point," Barber said.

Sandra Stanley, founder of Opening Doors, has seen how employment has helped its clients and encourages employers in the community to give them a chance.

"A lot of them have a fear, a fear of rejection when finding a job," Stanley said.

Some conversations between a company and prospective employee start when employers notice a long break on a résumé. Opening Doors and other Tarrant County organizations, like First Stop, teach clients how to go through the job search process: mock interviews, what to wear and how to conduct themselves.

Many times Barber would find out that employers were no longer interested because of her criminal record after the initial interview. Barber said one of the biggest hurdles is having people look at her and not her charges.

Employers Giving Opportunities

Barber is taking steps to improve her employment opportunities. She earned her driver's license and is now working on a GED. Many jobs want employees with a GED or high school diploma. Median earnings for those with a high school diploma are $746 a week compared to $592 for those without.

Meghan Farmer, a personal stylist, learned about the issues formerly incarcerated women go through while volunteering with The Net. The Fort Worth nonprofit works with survivors of sexual exploitation and trafficking.

She volunteered by visiting women who were incarcerated at the Tarrant County Jail. Farmer said she realized many of the women have the same amount of potential to work in the fashion industry as someone else.

"We just had different journeys," Farmer said. "Different choices were made for us or by us and we landed on different sides of the glass."

Along with her desire to create change in the fashion industry and help women who were formerly incarcerated, Farmer decided to create a sustainable T-shirt company.

The Bright Factory will manufacture and sell T-shirts. The shirts will be made in a way that doesn't workers at risk for harm. The company hopes to provide "dignified employment" to women who were formerly incarcerated. The company is still raising funds to officially launch.

Women will learn how to industrially sew and cut T-shirts which can be used by businesses to print their logo or message. The company hopes to teach employees transferable skills to help with future employment at other businesses.

Companies like JPMorgan Chase & Co., have recently decided to provide job opportunities to people with criminal backgrounds. In an op-ed for The New York Times, CEO Jamie Dimon said the company has "banned the box" in the initial application process that asks applicants about criminal record history.

"This group is ready to work and deserves a second chance — an opportunity to fill the millions of job openings across the country," Dimon wrote.

The company will discuss a potential employee's record if something comes back in a background check.

During a panel discussion on April 14 in Austin hosted by Right On Crime, business and state leaders discussed how second chance employment can improve the Texas economy. Right on Crime is a national campaign under the Texas Public Policy Foundation, which works to promote conservative reforms for issues in the criminal legal system.

Companies receive a federal income tax credit through the Work Opportunity Tax Credit program if they hire someone with a felony conviction. The state offers fidelity bonding services for people who may be viewed as an "at-risk" job applicant. According to the state, Union Insurance Group will issue a policy that can protect an employer against "acts of dishonesty" by the employee, including larceny, embezzlement and theft.

April Zamora, director of the Reentry and Integration Division Texas Department of Criminal Justice, said during the forum that the state has taken steps to help people find jobs before they are released from prison by hosting occupational training and job fairs.

Zamora said the department tells future employers that they should look at the value added with hiring people coming out of the prison system. Zamora told the story of a woman who was able to get a good job after being incarcerated. One woman left Amazon for a job at MD Anderson.

"That first couple of weeks is so important when a person gets home," Zamora said. "They need to have a sense of purpose. They need to know we want them to work."

What More Needs To Be Done

Five states have passed clean slate reform legislation. Jesse Kelly, national campaign manager Clean Slate Initiative, said during last week's forum that even a minor offense can place barriers on employment and put a person at risk for poverty.

"Currently, about five in 10 employers, four in five landlords, three in five colleges are all using some sort of background check and software to screen applicants," Kelly said.

Kelly said clean slate policy can help employers by expanding the pool of qualified applicants. The policy works by using technology to automatically clear certain criminal records if the person remains crime-free. Advocates in Texas want the policy to be used for people with low-level or non-violent crimes.

Kelly said recent research has found that a year after a person's record is clear, they are 11 percent more likely to have a job and 22 percent of those with jobs are earning higher wages than before.

Texas has a process that can remove or seal records of certain arrests, charges and convictions. However, advocates say the process can be long, confusing and expensive.

In a paper published last week, Right on Crime stated an automated system can help seal some people's records.

"This would allow court resources to be used more efficiently and eliminate all fees and forms, while the record holder would no longer be required to initiate the petition process— helping speed up the process to record relief and removing barriers to individuals getting back to work."

Barber's reentry process has taught her a lot about herself, she said. Barber learned that she doesn't need a man to validate her worth or to support herself.

"I always went to a man to pay my bills and for the first time in my life, I am doing it on my own," Barber said. "I'm learning my value."


Opening Doors for Women in Need: 817-920-9326

Reentry First Stop Center: 682-703-1600

(c)2022 the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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