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Help work-release participants gain job skills on their way to freedom.
At some point in our lives, whether as children or as working adults, we all have sought forgiveness and an opportunity to make amends. At Oneida Airport Hotel Corp. in Green Bay, Wis., hiring convicted felons and other criminal offenders gives these individuals second chances.
Our human resource philosophy is built on respect, service and integrity. Working with the work-release program at the State of Wisconsin Department of Corrections is one recruitment initiative that supports the philosophy and helps us employ a diverse staff. As a minority-owned company, diversity is important to us, as is accepting that everyone makes mistakes and deserves another chance.
Staffing is a challenge at our hospitality management company, which has multiple facilities. Despite annual reviews of wages and benefits, and a leading position within our local market, finding the "right" people to fill positions remains difficult due to the discrepancy between our pay structure and that of neighboring industrial employers.
The right people are those who perform their jobs beyond the expectations of corporate executives and customers. In a competitive environment, consistent service that exceeds expectations is crucial; what was the "wow factor" yesterday is now the norm.
We employ 507 individuals in full-time, part-time and seasonal roles. Of those, 30.7 percent are members of minority groups. Our turnover rate is 56 percent, attributed largely to the nature of the work performed, the pay structure of the industry and the cyclical nature of our business. We maintain an average retention rate of 47 percent among employees with two or more years of service.
The state Department of Corrections offers employers like us the opportunity to hire work-release participants near the end of their sentences who are deemed ready to begin reintegration into the community. These offenders are serving time for crimes from sexual assault to embezzlement to vehicular homicide. Employment through work-release is just one step participants go through before release. Each re-entry task is aimed at helping them to resume healthy, stable and productive roles. The goal is to provide education and means to keep participants from committing other crimes and returning to prison.
The goal: education and a means to keep participants from committing other crimes and returning to prison.
Here are some tips about hiring work-release candidates that may help you establish similar programs for your employer and your community.
Lots of Rules, Oversight
Work-release can be thought of as a temp-to-hire arrangement. Candidates are thoroughly screened by Department of Corrections officials before being presented as viable applicants. Their backgrounds are screened for criteria selected based on the type of employer. As a lodging and food and beverage service provider, for instance, we ask that prospective candidates be evaluated in terms of their qualifications and the risk to the hotel and public safety.
All participants are regularly screened for drug and alcohol abuse as inmates and searched daily for contraband by Department of Corrections officers. The hiring manager interviews the applicant and decides whether he or she is a fit for the department.
Participants are still incarcerated as they begin hotel work, and they must follow two sets of rules: the Department of Corrections' and the employer's. Supervising managers, participants and HR professionals must be familiar with both sets of rules and must ensure that they are compatible. Participants hired by the Radisson Hotel and Conference Center are required to attend our one-day employee orientation, at which they acknowledge understanding of and pledge compliance with policies and procedures.
Within 30 days of starting their employment, each participant sits down with the supervising manager, who reviews his or her expectations as well as the expectations of the organization and the work-release program. The supervising manager also conducts a performance review. This follow-up has proved beneficial in boosting participants' longevity on the job while still incarcerated and after release. We have seen improvement in participants' productivity as a result of these conversations.
Radisson Hotel & Conference Center
A 387-room hotel and conference center with three restaurants, three lounges and 30,000 square feet of banquet space. The company operates one other hotel and a golf course.Ownership: Oneida Airport Hotel Corp.Executives: Lance Broberg, president; James Elm, general manager; Margaret Waldo, director of human resources.Employees: 357 employees at the Radisson and 381 throughout the organization.Location: Green Bay, Wis.Connections: www.radisson.com/green-bay-hotel-wi-54313/greenbay
Road to Freedom
We currently employ five work-release participants, four in the laundry and one as a cook. We also employ two men who were released from prison. We had several other participants, but due to violations on their parts—including one infraction as incidental as returning to the prison with a bar of soap in a uniform pocket—those participants' privilege to work-release was revoked.
This year we employed five individuals after release. However, their newfound freedom and lack of self-discipline cost three men their jobs due to poor attendance. A critical takeaway for our managers was understanding that simply because individuals are on time while participating in work-release does not guarantee that the same promptness and work ethic will follow after they gain their freedom.
These employees are jointly managed and supervised. At work they are managed by our supervisors. Through regular, open communication with the work-release program coordinator in the Department of Corrections, participants receive coaching and counseling on performance, interpersonal skills and workplace etiquette. If it is determined by any party that the participant is not working out, the state's work-release coordinator communicates the decision to the participant to reduce the chance of retaliation.
Participants are paid the same wages as other employees in the same positions, based on experience. Their pay is directly deposited into accounts held in their names and managed by the state. Deductions from pay are withheld for federal, local and state taxes; child support and court-ordered garnishments; other arrears payments; and room and board of $22.50 per day. Work-release allows these men and women the opportunity to repay their debts and to support their family members.
David Barton, a former participant, said the program taught him:
The re-entry program provided him with tools to reduce his likelihood of returning to prison, to build a work history and ethic, and to improve his personal trust and self-esteem, he says.
Michael P., a current participant and a cook, said the program provides him the chance to prove himself and be responsible. He's learning "how society has changed and what we need to do to adjust."
As with any hiring decision, there is a chance that the participant, position expectations, environment and management philosophy may not be a good fit. Of the 10 work-release employees we've hired during the past year, five continued to work for us post-release and two remain employed, with one gaining a supervisory role in the laundry. The participants that we did not hire after their release aren't necessarily unemployable, they just weren't successful enough here to hire for available jobs with us.
It is easy to lose sight of the fact that these participants are not like other employees. There are other rules that apply to them. Their movements on the job are somewhat restricted. Failure by one participant to comply with the rules can impact others.
Guidance for Work-Release Programs
What managers need to know:
For example, our first participant was an excellent employee who quickly earned the trust and respect of department and upper managers and co-workers. Over time and through the course of doing his job, a mutual personal relationship developed with a full-time female co-worker in a training role. Because he was exceeding expectations daily, some co-workers forgot that this was a man who had been removed from all temptations, including physical contact with women in romantic situations. When the couple acted on their mutual feelings, he lost his freedom and ability to participate in the program. Our lapse cost us two excellent employees. So, remember the boundaries and enforce them. Although they seem cumbersome and unnecessary at times, they're in place for good reasons.
From my point of view, the benefits of the program include the following:
Deciding to hire work-release participants is not a decision to enter into without consideration for the business, the public's and employees' safety, and the short- and long-term welfare of the participants. A program is a "collaborative effort" between the inmates, corrections center staff and the employer, says John Richards, superintendant of the Sanger Powers Correctional Facility.
Work-release has bridged a gap in our search for reliable employees who deliver quality performance for hospitality wages. As Denny Frigo, executive housekeeper for the hotel, says, "It's a second chance for these guys."
The author is director of human resources for the Oneida Airport Hotel Corp. in Green Bay, Wis.
The Work-Release Picture: Confusing, Expanding
Work-release programs are authorized by statutes in all states. They pose opportunities and challenges to employers, correctional officers and members of many other groups that are affected when employers hire inmates.
Employers interested in exploring access to this labor pool will find current work-release programs difficult to track—and highly varied. State and federal prisons operate under different jurisdictions than county and municipal jails, so comprehensive statistics are difficult to generate. Some states have clear policies governing work-release programs while others do not, according to a working paper from three University of Delaware criminologists. Inmate eligibility, job activity restrictions placed on inmates, wage guidelines, transportation arrangements and notification requirements vary by state. Arkansas, Georgia, Indiana and Kansas, for example, prevent violent offenders from participating in work-release. Sixteen other states do not have statutes barring specific types of offenders from participating.Despite these inconsistencies, it appears to be a safe bet that more employers will have access to inmates as a potential labor pool in the coming years because:
By Eric Krell, a business writer based in Austin, Texas, who covers human resource and finance issues.
Washington State Snapshot
A 2008 study by the Washington Institute for Public Policy found that Washington state's work-release program—accompanied by training, parenting classes, therapy, substance abuse programming, separate housing and additional support—generated the following benefits:
Source: State of Washington Department of Corrections, November 2008.
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