Significant job opportunities are available to the formerly incarcerated, says reentry teacher Philip Leonida.
He has been teaching San Quentin’s Transitions/Reentry class since 2017 and has this message for anyone worried about their job options upon release from prison: “If you want to work, you can work. If you want to invest in an employer, you can make a career. The path now is very well lit.”
The formerly incarcerated face many barriers to finding legal employment and are often last in line for jobs. But progress has been made in recent years with numerous states passing “ban-the-box” mandates that prevent employers from initially asking about criminal records.
The pandemic has also created a favorable job market for applicants, including the 20 million Americans who are ex-felons, according to reporting by the Los Angeles Times.
Leonida acknowledges that employers can get around ban-the-box by doing background checks or asking about gaps in work histories. But he explained most larger employers with a Human Resources (HR) department are very aware of the law, including its provisions allowing them to be sued over illegal discrimination.
“They’re generally not going to ask about employment gaps during interviews, just like they’re not going to ask if you go to church on Sundays,” Leonida said.
“A lot of employers desperately want you to be the one to help them get the job done. If they actually offer you the job, they probably won’t change their mind even if they then check your background unless there is a direct correlation to the job and your offense.”
If you do face unlawful discrimination or denial in the hiring process, Leonida advises calling Oakland-based reentry provider Root and Rebound. It has an aggressive program to protect employment rights for the formerly incarcerated.
Leonida recommends going into interviews knowing your rights, while aiming to make a professional connection and highlighting your relevant skills. If an interviewer doesn’t go well or your background comes out, he suggests being honest and thinking of it as a “burner interview,” that is a valuable chance to hone your pitch for other interviews in the future.
“They can’t legally discriminate against you for your criminal history, but they can for your facial and knuckle tattoos,” Leonida said. “True, tattoos these days are a lot more accepted than they used to be. Just remember, it’s always important to get cleaned-up and have a good, helpful attitude. Be ready to be Mr. Johnny on the spot.”
Leonida hears of many employers looking specifically to hire the formerly incarcerated. He mentioned Costco, which has a reputation for treating its employees well, as being an employer that has contacted him about potential hires. Lots of trade union apprenticeships are available now for those with able bodies, he explained, adding that occupational licensing rules are also easing for those with a criminal record.
“I had one of my graduates email me to say he’s now making really good money driving a truck,” Leonida said. “He even got the Employment Development Department (EDD) to pay for trucking school. He said the drug tests are helping him to stay clean.”
The Transition/Reentry class is held throughout California state prisons. It takes two months to complete and covers five modules: 1) conducting a personal inventory; 2) meeting your needs and obtaining resources; 3) employment essentials like resumes and job searches; 4) job interviews; and, 5) financial literacy and budgeting.
To sign up, ask your correctional counselor to put you on the waiting list between 18 to 24 months prior to your anticipated release date.