BY VICKIE ALDOUS February 28, 2018
Medford Mail Tribune
With unemployment below 5 percent in the Medford area, even people with criminal records are landing jobs.
“For someone who has a poor-looking record, this is a good time to look for work because employers are willing to give them a chance,” says Jackson County Community Justice Project Manager Nathan Beard. “Employers are finding there are good results if they give someone a shot. Getting a job can be a real boost for someone that will help them stay on the straight and narrow. It’s a win-win situation for the community when it goes well.”
Beard helps people on probation and post-prison supervision figure out what kind of job they want, update their resumes, practice in mock interviews and search for a job with more than 70 local businesses that have agreed to consider hiring clients on supervision.
Companies don’t want to publicize their willingness to hire former criminals, but participating businesses represent almost all industries, including manufacturing, construction, food service, lodging and health care, Beard says.
He launched the job search program in January 2017.
In the beginning, Beard focused on reaching out to local companies to see which ones were open to hiring people with criminal records.
“I’ve had an overwhelmingly positive response,” Beard says. “I build relationships with employers. We have a lot of really skilled people with serious problems and long rap sheets. A person may have 10 years’ experience in a field, but then they got addicted to meth. They still have that resume.”
Since Beard started offering regular office hours at the county probation office in July 2017, he’s had more than 430 clients seek help, with about half landing jobs.
Approximately 2,100 people are on supervision in Jackson County, according to the community justice department.
Beard lets the clients steer the search process by asking them what kind of jobs they want. He then tries to identify barriers to employment, including whether people have stable housing, transportation, a driver’s license, an email address and a phone.
In one-on-one meetings with him, clients are more likely to disclose barriers that are embarrassing to them, such as an inability to read, he says.
At the probation office, clients also can sign up for the Oregon Health Plan, which provides coverage for substance abuse and medications for mental health issues.
“They can’t make the excuse anymore that they can’t afford to go to treatment,” he says.
Beard tries to match them up with job situations in which they have the greatest chance of success.
“If they have to be at work in White City at 5 a.m. four days a week for 10-hour shifts and they have to ride their bike from Talent, they’re not likely to succeed,” he says.
Looking for a job closer to home increases the chances they’ll make it to work — and also helps keep clients out of trouble. The more time they spend in transit from one place to another, the more opportunity they have to run into acquaintances who have led them astray in the past, Beard says.
“I also look at the amount of time they’ve been clean and sober. Most crimes are related to substance abuse of some sort,” he says.
Beard says he advises clients to always be truthful with prospective employers about their criminal histories.
Most of the people have not committed serious violent crimes, but some have. They also need to be honest, although Beard advises them not to go into lurid details.
“You don’t have to say, ‘I beat this guy up with a lead pipe.’ Just say, ‘I did a four-year prison stint. I’m in recovery. I have these skills and I’m going to these treatment groups.’ Often the employer will be sympathetic. I tell them to be honest about it,” Beard says.
Some companies refuse to hire certain offenders.
For example, employers might say they won’t hire people with theft charges for cashier jobs, Beard says.
Many employers are unwilling to hire registered sex offenders, although Beard still tries to help offenders find jobs.
“Often that’s a deal-breaker if you have to register as a sex offender,” he says. “Many employers are not willing to deal with the backlash of co-workers finding out. I had one company say that it couldn’t hire a sex offender because the co-workers might beat him up in the parking lot.”
About 21 percent of the clients Beard sees are female. Women make up 25 percent of the people on supervision in Jackson County.
He sees few differences between his male and female clients, although women tend to be interested in different types of jobs than men.
Some women have been victims of domestic violence and are still recovering from the abuse. They may not want to work at a company where the perpetrator of the abuse works, he notes.
Recently, Beard says a batch of clients with construction experience and reliable transportation had success working on a major construction project that offered plentiful overtime.
“A lot of people got offers to work on future projects,” he says.
The job matches don’t always work out.
Beard recalls helping one man get a job at a plywood mill. But he started using heroin again and stopped going to work.
Some clients who have worked to overcome addiction face temptation when they start earning paychecks.
“Having money can be scary for a former addict,” Beard says.
Clients often earn low wages in the jobs that are available to them, and they have to be more persistent in their job search efforts than people without criminal records.
“They’ll have to get used to rejection,” Beard says.
But overall, he says the odds have gotten better for clients who want to become productive members of the community again.
“The playing field for people on probation is more even. I’m getting 60 to 80 people a month coming in for help looking for jobs. They are hearing through word-of-mouth that companies are willing to hire them,” Beard says.
And while not every new hire has worked out, many employers are having good enough results that they want to continue tapping this often-overlooked labor pool.
“They’re actually calling me and telling me when they have job openings,” Beard says.
Beard has job search office hours on a drop-in basis or by appointment through a probation officer from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Tuesdays, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Wednesdays and from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Thursdays at the Jackson County Community Justice and Elections Building, 1101 W. Main St., Medford. He can be reached at 541-774-4922.