HEBRON, Ky. — All Adam Criss wanted was steady work so he could support himself and his family.
He battled addiction for eight years before being incarcerated for a felony drug possession conviction. After serving his time, he had finally gotten sober and gained his freedom -- but was struggling to keep a job.
“A lot of people tell you that they’re ‘second chance,’” said Criss, 28, who also has two second-degree burglaries on his record. “And, you know, they tell you that they’ll hire you. So you fill out the job application. And then they’re like, 'Well, we don’t hire your kind of felonies.'”
After getting that response more than half a dozen times, Criss went to the Life Learning Center in Covington for help. Staff there suggested he seek work at Close the Loop, a waste-reduction business in Hebron. Criss said his frustration showed when he went there to apply for a job.
“I pretty much had just lost hope. I was like, look, you know, don’t waste my time. I don’t want to waste yours. I just laid it all out on the table,” he said. “Three days later, they called me. Now I’ve been here a year and three months.”
As the tight labor market makes it increasingly difficult for employers to fill jobs, a growing number of Northern Kentucky companies are following the lead of places like Close the Loop.
More and more businesses are adjusting their policies to become what are known as “second chance” employers, meaning they’re willing to hire people with criminal records, said Leisa Spears Mulcahy, vice president of workforce at the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce and managing director of GROW NKY.
“A lot of employer policies and practices are actually barriers to employment,” Mulcahy said. “So when you lower those barriers and actually bring those policies into your organization and create that culture of acceptance, you do open up an opportunity to employ a pretty sizable number of job seekers across the region.”
It’s a big change from the days when companies had plenty of job applicants who were loaded with skills and had no problem getting to work, said Lee Crume, president and CEO of Northern Kentucky Tri-ED, the economic development company for Boone, Campbell and Kenton counties.
‘The proof is in the data’
“Necessity is the mother of all creation,” Crume said. “It caused our employers to weigh into that changing perception, say, 'Yeah, this is something that is not a risk for us. There is a labor pool here that we can access for really a dual good – maybe even more than that. The good of the person, good of the community as well as good of the company. And oftentimes you find out you have a good, loyal employee base inside of that because they’re appreciative of the opportunity.”
Northern Kentucky traditionally has had a higher labor force participation rate than the state as a whole, Mulcahy said. The Kentucky Center for Statistics reported in February 2020 – before the coronavirus pandemic -- that the proportion of the working-age population that was employed or actively seeking employment was 66% for Northern Kentucky, she noted, as compared to 59.3% for the state as a whole.
But by March, Kentucky’s labor force participation rate had dropped below 57%, making it the 48th lowest in the nation, she said, and Northern Kentucky’s rate was at 65.5%.
“We have lost a considerable number of people,” she said. “A lot of that is because of childcare obviously still being one of the big pieces of that puzzle.”
That has companies making other changes to attract employees, too, Crume said, including more flexible schedules and higher wages.
“We’re seeing employers having to get creative and really think outside of that traditional box to address this,” he said. “It doesn’t really become an issue for you until you bump up against that labor participation rate and the lack of workforce.”
The goal, Mulcahy said, is helping employers understand what it means for their businesses to hire people with prior convictions.
“One of the big myths surrounding hiring people with criminal records is that it increases risk for the organization,” she said. “No studies support the idea that formerly incarcerated individuals pose a greater security risk.”
Kentucky has a no-cost bonding program designed to protect employers against any form of theft when they hire people with criminal convictions, she said, adding that the program has been available in the U.S. since 1966 and has a 99% success rate of no incidents occurring.
“The proof is in the data. This certainly is not a risk factor,” she said. “And in two recent studies, human resources managers found that annual turnover was on average 12.2% lower for employees with criminal records. And by adopting a program to recruit employees with criminal histories, that reduced turnover from 25% to 11%.”
Looking to the future – not the past
Close the Loop doesn’t track formally how many of its employees have criminal records, roughly 30% of the company’s current warehouse employees are so-called “second chance” hires, said Tom Kelly, the company’s human resources manager.
The company has given people with criminal backgrounds those opportunities for many years, said Close the Loop co-CEO Tom Ogonek.
“We look towards people’s future, our employees’ future, and not their past,” Ogonek said. “People make mistakes. People have their own challenges. We all have our own challenges that we have to deal with, our own hurdles to overcome. Their just happens to be in a different arena than maybe some others.”
Criss said the company has won his loyalty. Not only did Close the Loop hire him, he said, the company also encouraged him to pursue a promotion. Criss now works as a machine operator and knows how to operate many of the big machines that shred plastic, empty ink jet cartridges and break down other products so the materials in them can be reused.
“I actually have an opportunity not just to work here, but to grow,” Criss said. “As long as this plant’s open, I’ll be here.”
Criss is earning enough to help support his four kids and three dogs, he said, and he has bought two new cars since he started at Close the Loop. Next, he said, he wants to buy a house in Cynthiana where he lives.
“Who knows where I’d be if somebody hadn’t given me the opportunity,” Criss said. “And I tell Tom Ogonek and Tom Kelly and everybody all the time when I speak to them, 'You know, I do appreciate and I like my job, and I’m thankful.'”
Ogonek said he didn’t even know Criss was a second-chance hire until recently, and it doesn’t make a difference to him either way.
“We’ve all gotten second chances at some point in our life,” Ogonek said. “We just embrace everybody that wants to work. That’s the challenge.”
Close the Loop wants to hire 20 more people for its operation in Hebron. Information on how to apply is available online.
Information about GROW NKY is available online. More information about the Life Learning Center in Covington is available online, too. Resources for companies interested in becoming second chance employers are available through Kentucky Comeback. Eastern Kentucky Concentrated Employment Program, Inc., serves employers and job-seekers, too.
Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and shine a spotlight on problems we need to address. Poverty is an important focus for Lucy and for WCPO 9. To reach Lucy, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.