How to Deal

Employing an ex-convict. Is it right?

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By Lily Garcia
Special to The Washingtonpost
Friday, April 16, 2010; 8:35 AM

Hi, I work for a supermarket chain in this area and I have noticed Management hiring work release convicts to work in our stores. This seems to be company policy. I think they are setting up layoffs. I realize they are cheap labor and really only want a few hours free. I'm not sure if I'm comfortable having them around children or young ladies. How can I voice my concerns?

According to the most recent data available from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, nearly 5.1 million adults were on probation or parole at the end of 2008. That is one for every 45 adults living in the United States. The public policy debate regarding how to manage the employment needs of this population rages on, with compelling arguments on either side. For many, the idea of allotting scarce public resources for the welfare of those who have been convicted of heinous crimes is deeply offensive. Yet, according to a publication of the U.S. Department of Labor's National Institute of Justice, ex-offenders who are able to become gainfully employed and are less likely to commit crimes again than those who do not secure jobs, and there is an inverse relationship between ex-offender wages and the frequency of recidivism.

In addition to government programs, organizations such as the Center for Employment Opportunities (www.ceoworks.org) in New York assist those who have been released from prison with the transition to employment. This is to be distinguished from work release programs under the auspices of state and county departments of corrections that allow inmates to continue to serve out their sentences while spending a portion of their time working outside of prison. Work release programs sometimes benefit from the collaboration and support of community-based initiatives such as the Safer Foundation in Chicago (www.safer-fnd.org), which runs two transitional facilities for male inmates on behalf of the Illinois Department of Corrections. Proponents of work release programs maintain that they actually promote public safety by gradually reintegrating inmates into their communities, forging supportive ties with family, establishing gainful employment, and building a safety net of savings, all of which contribute to preventing re-offense. Incidentally, only a small portion of the work release inmate's salary is typically placed in savings for that person's benefit. The vast majority of work release program earnings go toward payment of the inmate's room and board, family obligations like child support, and restitution to the victims of crime.

The concerns that you have raised underscore the primary reasons why employers may hesitate to hire ex-offenders or participate in work release programs. They worry about the safety of their employees and customers, the theft of valuable assets, and exposure to negligent hiring lawsuits brought by anyone the ex-offender or inmate may harm.

To countervail these concerns, employers are incentivized by tax credits that can make inmates and ex-offenders a lower-cost source of labor. The Work Opportunity Tax Credit provides employers with a federal tax credit for hiring people, including ex-felons, who fit one of twelve categories of disadvantaged job applicants. In the case of an ex-felon, the credit is $2,400. Some states also provide tax advantages to employers who take a chance on ex-offenders or inmates on work release. In Iowa, for example, employers who meet certain criteria may deduct 65 percent of the wages paid in the first 12 months of employment up to $20,000 per employee.

Our society may have good reasons for promoting work release programs and your employer may have good reasons for participating. This provides little comfort, however, to someone like you who has questions about the wisdom of allowing inmates to work alongside young women and children. When the leaders of your company made a decision to participate in a work release program, they should have anticipated that employees would have such concerns. Because they have done a poor job of informing you and others about the parameters of the program, you are naturally left to wonder whether your most vulnerable customers are at risk.

It might comfort you to know that many work release programs restrict participation to inmates who are not repeat offenders and have not been convicted of sexual assault. The participants must have a sterling record of prison behavior and they are kept under strict supervision when they are not at work. Usually, they must report back to prison or a halfway house when they are not on the job.

Nevertheless, you should ask management specific questions regarding the prerequisites for participation in the work release program from which they have hired and the criteria that is being used to select inmates for employment at your stores. If you find your company's answers unsatisfying, you should propose measures that could be taken to ensure the safety and serenity of employees and customers. Because your company's participation in the work release program appears to have been driven by budgetary concerns, the decision is unlikely to be reversed. Yet, I think you will find that your managers are receptive to ideas for averting a detrimental backlash.

Lily Garcia has offered employment law and human resources advice to companies of all sizes for more than 10 years. To submit a question, e-mail HRadvice@washingtonpost.com. We reserve the right to edit submitted questions for length and clarity and cannot guarantee that all questions will be answered.


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