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Employers are opening opportunities to formerly incarcerated people to fill vacancies

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

The red-hot labor market has employers recruiting furiously for workers and considering applicants they might have passed on before. As An-Li Herring of member station WESA reports, there's evidence businesses are opening up positions for people with criminal convictions on their records.

AN-LI HERRING, BYLINE: Brandy White lives just outside Pittsburgh, and when she returned last summer from seven years in prison, she figured she'd be locked out of her previous career in patient care. It was painful to think about.

BRANDY WHITE: My passion is to help people, and I didn't think it was ever possible again.

HERRING: Instead, White got a job on a chocolate factory assembly line that left her feeling pretty empty. Eventually, she enrolled in a job training program to see if she could find fulfilling work elsewhere. She was surprised when the program staff told her Pittsburgh's biggest health system was looking for employees just like her.

WHITE: And I said, listen. Do they know about my drug charge? And they had to keep reassuring me, Brandy, they know - because it just didn't seem real.

HERRING: White started as a patient care technician at a University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Hospital last month. UPMC's Dan LaVallee says her timing couldn't have been better.

DAN LAVALLEE: We have 14,000 unfilled positions at the current moment that we're trying to recruit for, so we need to get creative. You know, for us, it's about making sure that people who have barriers to work can see a future with us.

HERRING: LaVallee leads an effort at UPMC Health Plan to support job seekers who face obstacles such as past convictions. The initiative started the year before the pandemic began, but given the current labor crunch, other employers are also seeking out people with records. Amy Kroll has witnessed this shift from inside the Allegheny County Jail in Pittsburgh, where she runs reentry services. She remembers getting a call last summer from a business owner.

AMY KROLL: I was like, do you know you're calling Allegheny County Jail? He kind of chuckled and said, yes, I do, but I have multiple vacancies and you have young men and young women down there. And I need to fill these vacancies.

HERRING: Kroll says she soon got similar requests from manufacturing plants, construction firms and restaurants. And there are signs it's a national trend. The job site Indeed keeps track of postings that say applicants don't have to report past involvement with the justice system, at least on their initial screen. While they still account for a small share of all postings, there's a third more today than in 2019.

HARLEY BLAKEMAN: We have actually had job candidates on our site apply for three jobs, get two offers and then be able to choose between one or the other. And I think that's a dynamic that probably never existed before for formerly incarcerated jobseekers.

HERRING: Harley Blakeman leads Honest Jobs, an online platform for applicants with criminal records. He and other reentry service providers say their clients are not just getting better pay and benefits, but they also have a better chance of landing jobs where they can see a future for themselves. In Pittsburgh, Daijon Arnett just started as a prep cook at a restaurant called The Porch. He says he wanted to become a chef even before he was released from prison last fall.

DAIJON ARNETT: I plan to be all over this kitchen stuff (laughter). So yeah, this is a real big step for me.

HERRING: He says it makes a difference to have a job he's excited about.

ARNETT: That's one thing that's key with me. If I really enjoy where I'm at, you ain't never, never got to worry about me. So that was probably one problem I had when I was about 18, 19. I didn't really get the big picture.

HERRING: Some worry these opportunities will fade when the labor market cools, but advocates for second-chance hiring hope formerly incarcerated people can avert that outcome by proving themselves in the jobs they have today.

For NPR News, I'm An-Li Herring in Pittsburgh.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.