I’m going to find a new job. At least, that’s what I’ve been saying for over a year. I keep talking myself out of leaving though, because what I have is known and stable. I’ve run the job search gauntlet before and having a record makes it even more difficult to change employers. Staying at my current job, no matter my happiness level, means not having to start over in proving my value and capability. Of the things holding me back, foremost is my fear of the box. Nothing is so likely to close doors before I even step through and introduce myself.
In case you are not aware, the box is this small field on many job applications that asks you to check yes if you’ve ever been convicted of a felony. Most of you have probably seen it, checked no, and moved on along to the rest of the application. For those of you like me, who have to check yes, you probably know the sinking feeling I have; yes means you often don’t even get an interview. My own company does not hire felons at all; applicants with records are not given even a moment of consideration. Obviously, this wasn’t always the case, because I was hired, but it can be standard practice at larger companies in my field.
There are organizations working to make strides in this area, including the Ban the Box Campaign, but choosing to not only work with those entering the workforce after incarceration, but waiting to ask any questions about a person’s record is a specific choice an employer must make.
In November of 2016, the Obama administration finalized a regulation that prevents federal government employers from asking about a criminal record until the applicant is in the offer phase. The idea here is that it eliminates knee-jerk judgements based on an applicant’s record, allowing interview participants to focus on qualifications.
At the federal level, this is a huge step in helping with re-entry, and there are some states that have started enforcing this change with private employers. Some have signed the Fair Chance Pledge, including Google, Microsoft, and Target, as well as a heartening number of other employers. This is a terrific step, but it still leaves gaps; for me, my state is not on the list of those adhering at the federal or private sector level, nor are some of the companies at which I would like to work.
I’m not without some choices, but I’ve spent weeks looking up which employers don’t background check more than seven years ago, or which employers don’t ask at all, until the interview. And so I keep choosing to remain with an employer that is the devil I know. I’ve certainly worked at worse.
My first job out of prison was working at a grocery store, part time, no benefits. Six months after I started, I was let go because the state of Michigan was no longer bonding me. The Federal Bonding Program essentially provides insurance incentive for employers to hire at-risk applicants, in the form of bonds, ranging from five- to twenty-five-thousand dollars, covering a period of six months. After this period of time the coverage is ended, unless an employer wants to purchase bonding for that employee. In this case the grocery store elected to terminate me, per its company policy. Nice in theory, as it was provided by the state as part of re-entry assistance, but unfortunate in that the incentive is not long-term for the employer or the worker.
Circumstance are much different now. I no longer require a bonding service, I have ten years in my field, with the same employer, a stack of reference letters, and a lengthy period between getting out of prison and getting my life together. But I may not get a chance to tell a potential employer my story, or highlight qualifications, if I have to check yes.
I understand that there are positions where an employer would be remiss in hiring an applicant with a history of felonious behavior. I have had to make that call myself, when interviewing for my team. But I do so understanding the justice system can become a never ending cycle of punishment, without focus on making rehabilitation possible. When ex-offenders cannot find work, and so cannot support themselves, or cannot remain free because the monetary cost of imprisonment is often high, that ultimately ends with a trip right back to the yard. I am fortunate. I’ve long since paid my fines, fees, and dues. What I want now is to do good work, for the right employer, with my prison history firmly seated where it belongs: in the past.
One of these days, I’ll put another foot forward. I’ll apply for a job, whether or not I have to reckon with the box, but I know it will be a struggle, especially if I have to check yes. Right now, I’m anchored in one spot, and feels like my options are so limited that I won’t ever have full control over the choices I want to make to keep that will better my life.
“Agnes,” Rabble’s Felony Record Editor, is a formerly incarcerated queer feminist who believes that justice reform is crucial.
Header Image: Creative Commons, Public Domain