Work­ers who were once shunned find them­selves em­ploy­able in tight mar­ket

The Buffalo News - - NATIONAL NEWS - By Ben Casselman

A rapidly tight­en­ing la­bor mar­ket is forc­ing com­pa­nies across the coun­try to con­sider work­ers they once would have turned away. That is pro­vid­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties to peo­ple who have long faced bar­ri­ers to em­ploy­ment, such as crim­i­nal records, dis­abil­i­ties or pro­longed bouts of job­less­ness.

In Dane County, Wis., where the un­em­ploy­ment rate was just 2 per­cent in Novem­ber, de­mand for work­ers has grown so in­tense that man­u­fac­tur­ers are tak­ing their re­cruit­ing a step fur­ther: hir­ing in­mates at full wages to work in fac­to­ries even while they serve their sen­tences. These com­pa­nies were not part of tra­di­tional work-re­lease pro­grams that are far less gen­er­ous and rarely lead to jobs af­ter prison.

“When the un­em­ploy­ment rate is high, you can af­ford to not hire any­one who has a crim­i­nal record, you can af­ford to not hire some­one who’s been out of work for two years,” said Lawrence H. Sum­mers, the Har­vard econ­o­mist and for­mer Trea­sury sec­re­tary. “When the un­em­ploy­ment rate is lower, em­ploy­ers will adapt to peo­ple rather than ask­ing peo­ple to adapt to them.”

The U.S. econ­omy hasn’t ex­pe­ri­enced this kind of fierce com­pe­ti­tion for work­ers since the late 1990s and early 2000s, the last time the un­em­ploy­ment rate – cur­rently 4.1 per­cent – was this low.

The tight job mar­ket hasn’t yet trans­lated into strong wage growth for U.S. work­ers. But there are ten­ta­tive signs that, too, could be chang­ing – par­tic­u­larly for lower-paid work­ers who were largely left out of the early stages of the eco­nomic re­cov­ery. Wal­mart on Thurs­day said it would raise pay for en­try-level work­ers be­gin­ning in Fe­bru­ary; its ri­val Tar­get an­nounced a sim­i­lar move last fall.

Em­ploy­ers are also be­com­ing more flex­i­ble in other ways. Burn­ing Glass Tech­nolo­gies, a Bos­ton-based soft­ware com­pany that an­a­lyzes job-mar­ket data, has found an in­crease in post­ings open to peo­ple with­out ex­pe­ri­ence. And un­em­ploy­ment rates have fallen sharply in re­cent years for peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties or with­out a high school diploma.

Un­til re­cently, some­one like Jor­dan Forseth might have strug­gled to find work. Forseth, 28, was re­leased from prison in Novem­ber af­ter serv­ing a 26-month sen­tence for bur­glary and firearm pos­ses­sion. Forseth, how­ever, had a job even be­fore he walked out of the Ore­gon Cor­rec­tion Cen­ter a free man.

Nearly ev­ery week­day morn­ing for much of last year, Forseth would board a van at the min­i­mum-se­cu­rity prison out­side Madi­son, Wis., and ride to Stoughton Trail­ers, where he and more than a dozen other in­mates earned $14 an hour wiring tail­lights and build­ing side­walls for the com­pany’s line of semi­trail­ers.

Af­ter he was re­leased, Forseth kept right on work­ing at Stoughton. But in­stead of rid­ing in the prison van, he drives to work in the 2015 Ford Fu­sion he bought with the money he saved while in­car­cer­ated. “It’s a sec­ond chance,” Forseth said. “I think we’re prov­ing our­selves out there to be pretty solid work­ers.”

Forseth got that chance in part be­cause of Dane County’s red-hot la­bor mar­ket. Stoughton Trail­ers, a fam­ily-owned man­u­fac­turer that em­ploys about 650 peo­ple at its plant in the county, has raised pay, of­fered re­fer­ral bonuses and ex­panded its in-house train­ing pro­gram. But it has still strug­gled to fill dozens of po­si­tions.

Meghen Yeadon, a re­cruiter for Stoughton, found part of the so­lu­tion: a Wis­con­sin De­part­ment of Cor­rec­tions work-re­lease pro­gram for min­i­mum-se­cu­rity in­mates.

Work-re­lease pro­grams have of­ten been crit­i­cized for ex­ploit­ing in­mates by forc­ing them to work gru­el­ing jobs for pay that is of­ten well be­low min­i­mum wage. But the Wis­con­sin pro­gram is vol­un­tary, and in­mates are paid mar­ket wages. State of­fi­cials say the pro­gram gives in­mates a chance to build up some sav­ings, learn vocational skills and pre­pare for life af­ter prison.

Yeadon ini­tially en­coun­tered skep­ti­cism from su­per­vi­sors. But as the lo­cal la­bor pool kept shrink­ing, it be­came harder to rule out a group of po­ten­tial – al­beit un­con­ven­tional – work­ers.

“Our com­pany is look­ing for new ways to find pools of peo­ple just be­cause of our hir­ing needs be­ing so high,” Yeadon said. Other com­pa­nies are mak­ing sim­i­lar choices. Of­fi­cials in Wis­con­sin and other states with sim­i­lar in­mate pro­grams say de­mand for their work­ers has risen sharply in the past year. And while most com­pa­nies may not be ready to turn to in­mate la­bor, there are signs they are in­creas­ingly will­ing to con­sider can­di­dates with crim­i­nal records, who’ve long faced trou­ble find­ing jobs. The govern­ment doesn’t reg­u­larly col­lect data on em­ploy­ment for peo­ple with records. But pri­vate-sec­tor sources sug­gest com­pa­nies have be­come more will­ing to con­sider hir­ing them. Data from Burn­ing Glass showed 7.9 per­cent of on­line job post­ings in­di­cated that a crim­i­nal-back­ground check was re­quired, down from 8.9 per­cent in 2014.

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