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Second Chances: Employing Convicted Felons

Help work-release participants gain job skills on their way to freedom.

March CoverAt 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.

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:

  • Responsibility for his actions.
  • Respect for others and the business.
  • How to be reliable—and the importance of it.

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.

Strict Limits

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:

  • Interview each program participant as you would any potential applicant.
  • Treat them as the person they are, not the history they created.
  • Respect their past, present and future, giving them the same tools for success you give other employees.
  • Understand the rules of the program, and set the standard of compliance through your words and actions.
  • Key factors for making it work:
  • Establish and adhere to your background-check protocol.
  • Engage supervising managers in the decision.
  • Set and communicate clear expectations of the program and participants.
  • Be aware that the program requires job site visits by officers.

—Margaret Waldo

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:

  • The business gains reliable workers who are on time every day. Participants arrive for and are picked up from work in an unmarked van at the employee entrance.
  • Proper uniform and hygiene standards are met.
  • Short- or long-term hiring needs are filled with minimal downtime.
  • State officials provide additional supervision and support for the hotel managers and participants.
  • All employees and the business benefit from the cultivation of an accepting, supportive environment.
  • The community benefits when employers help participants transition from incarceration to freedom.
  • Participants benefit when they:
  • Make positive contributions to the community.
  • Adjust to the changes in society and learn what will be expected of them upon release.
  • Have an opportunity to be responsible for and make the right choices in day-to-day decisions.
  • Develop a stable, steady work history.
  • Are able to repay debts and fulfill financial obligations such as room and board and child support.

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:

  • The current U.S. prison population alone numbers more than 2 million.
  • A steady flow of people are released annually. Roughly 650,000 per year leave U.S. prisons and 7 million depart from U.S. jails.
  • Diverse experts voice the view that educational and vocational training, including work-release, help reduce recidivism.
  • The above figures and resources can help HR professionals evaluate work-release programs.

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:

  • Offenders earned $6.1 million while employed during their time in work-release.
  • Offenders paid $571,000 in legal financial obligations and accumulated 8,800 hours in community service.
  • 21 percent of the offenders re-entered their communities through work-release.
  • 80 percent of offenders were employed after completing a work-release program and being released from detention.
  • Recidivism among work-release participants was reduced by 2.8 percent compared to the average rate, after one year.
  • The program generated a $3.82 benefit for each dollar of cost.

Source: State of Washington Department of Corrections, November 2008.

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