Louise Batchelor was running a $1 million insurance agency when she was convicted of theft at age 55. After emerging from four months in prison, she realized she had gone from employer to unemployable.
"I couldn't even get a job at McDonald's," Batchelor told The Huffington Post.
Batchelor approached Second Chance, a San Diego-based nonprofit providing workforce readiness training for hard-to-place job seekers. Saddled with two felony counts of grand theft for stealing insurance premiums, Batchelor said she wanted the answer to one question: "How do I tell an employer I have a felony, but that it does not define me?"
For those at the bottom of the employment ladder -- former convicts, drug addicts, gang members and other "untouchables" of the job market -- getting a break can seem close to impossible. Fortunately, small businesses seem willing to do what larger corporations can't or won't: hire some of the "least desirable" workers in the country.
After graduating from the four-week Second Chance program in 2010, Batchelor became one of these small business owners, starting San Diego-based EnviroGreen Electronic Recycling Services in January 2011. Batchelor hired one full-time employee and 15 temporary employees from Second Chance.
"We put this stigma on [ex-cons], but how do we expect them to get better if we don't hire them?" Batchelor said. "Small businesses can help, even if it's giving them something part time to start with that they can build from."
Second Chance has lately been featured in the Sundance Channel's TV series "Get to Work." Other programs, including Exodus Transitional Community in New York City and the Safer Foundation in Illinois, prepare ex-felons to find employment, while organizations like X Felons 4 Hire and Hard2Hire do job placement or job matchmaking, in an effort to lower recidivism rates for the about 600,000 people released from U.S. prisons annually.
The government also provides hiring incentives. The IRS offers the $2,400 Work Opportunity tax credit for hiring ex-felons, the same amount it offers for hiring veterans. And the U.S. Department of Labor offers a federal bonding program for at-risk job seekers.
However, many employers remain skittish. Second Chance executive director Robert Coleman reported that in response to the question "would you consider hiring an ex-offender for this position?" only a small percentage said yes, approximately one-third said no and about two-thirds said "it depends." In his experience, Coleman said, small business owners tend to be more likely than large corporations to say yes to the 3,726 Second Chance graduates who have found employment since 2003, earning an average starting wage of $10.02. Coleman told The Huffington Post most of these jobs were created by small-business owners and franchise owners, "typically not bigger companies, which have much stricter entry requirements."
"Big companies with big HR departments are less personal, more process-oriented in terms of their recruiting, which tends to be a bigger struggle for people who have colorful backgrounds, irrespective of how many years ago that may have been."
Coleman added that small businesses often look past the stigma, tattoos and piercings to see "an excited, talented person who has turned his or her life around."
Inspired by a friend who turned his life around after prison, Kevin Pili has hired 21 Second Chance graduates for AOne Show Services, his 71-employee security and guest services business in San Diego.
"Working helps individuals not only provide for themselves, but to feel better," Pili said. "They're being empowered with experience."
Unlike Batchelor, Pili feels compelled to hire the unemployable specifically because he hasn't been in their position. "I've been blessed with much in my life, and this is a small way for me to give back," Pili said. When his employees excel at their jobs, "something wonderful takes place in the individual," he said. "What I see in the workplace is that they're grateful, we're grateful."
Coleman of Second Chance often sees returning graduates thankful for employment. He said one 24-year-old man found full-time work within seven weeks of graduating from Second Chance, even though he had served seven years in prison for attempted murder as a teen gang member. "He said to the class, 'That is not me today,'" Coleman said. "He showed that anyone can be successful in finding employment, or at least hold their own against other people applying for the job, where their background is absolutely not a hindrance."
An applicant's criminal background isn't a hindrance for Pili, who feels he has uncovered "an untapped resource" of excellent workers that many more employers should consider.
"It's all about getting over the thought that they're unemployable," he said, "which I obviously don't believe. These employees have been amazing."