A labor shortage sparked by the COVID-19 pandemic is helping formerly incarcerated people find jobs, according to The Associated Press.
At least 11.3 million jobs opened up in the U.S. “amid a dire national labor shortage” sparked by the pandemic, according to the July 10 AP story.
When Antonio McGowan walked out Mississippi’s Parchman State Penitentiary in 2014, and after 17 years, he had trouble finding a stable job and paycheck.
“Things weren’t in place” McGowan said. “They weren’t where I wanted them to be as far as being an individual back in society. It was a struggle.”
McGowan found himself working from one odd job to the next, including landscaping and painting, but it was not enough to pay the bills. It was difficult finding a permanent job with a criminal record.
In recent years, McGowan was able to find employment with the help of the Hinds County Reentry Program and MagCor, companies that provide job training for people in Mississippi correctional facilities and formerly incarcerated people seeking employment. These jobs provide stable hours and a paycheck.
“We think the pandemic, in a sense, was a big help,” MagCor recruiter Eric Beamon said. “If no one wants to work anymore, or if everyone wants to work from home, employers are begging for employees.”
Studies show that having a stable job reduces recidivism. Even though not everyone is willing to hire people with criminal records, a 2021 survey conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management Foundation and the Charles Koch Institute shows 53% of professionals say they are willing to hire people with criminal records, up from 37% in 2018, according to the AP.
With the help of Upchurch Services, a company that allows workers to take classes in repair services and gain experience in the field, McGowan found a fulltime job in air conditioning and heating repairs, working 40 hours a week. He earns $15 an hour plus overtime and has full health care coverage.
“Summer, winter, spring or fall, you’ll need either heat or air conditioning,” he said. “So I found something I can help people out with. At the same time, it can keep me in the working class, so I don’t fall back into the things I used to do.”
McGowan said his work means more than just a job. “It’s the look on someone’s face,” he said. “When you fix something of theirs that’s been broken, they just smile. I spent so many years hurting people. So I know the look people have when they feel hurt. To see the reverse of that, it’s enough to make me happy.”
Other companies such as Amazon, Waffle House, and Columbus-based Lyle Machinery are among firms willing to hire ex-prisoners. There has been an increase in new jobs and in wages, some as paying as much as $20 an hour.
The workforce reentry program also provides parolees with mentors to help with the challenges after incarceration. Cynetra Freeman was Savannah Hayden’s mentor after she was released from prison in November for five felony convictions.
Freeman is the founder of Mississippi Center for Reentry, an organization that prepares inmates to leave prison and be ready and prepared for the workforce.
The day after Freeman was released from prison, she recalls taking the bus to the employment agency, only to be told she would never get a job because of her criminal record.
“This crushed me and made me think about others who felt the same devastation,” Freeman said. “Employment is one of the toughest aspects for a person who is just returning home.”
Freeman encouraged Hayden to think long-term for a stable job. Hayden now works as the mental health and drug addiction coordinator for Freeman at the Center for Reentry.
“After so many doors are slammed in your face, you get tired of asking,” Hayden said. “But there will be a person who says ‘yes,’ and that will change your life.”