If they can't work, then this city won't work

October 17, 2005|By DAN RODRICKS

A man named Nathaniel Nelson, who described himself as a 45-year-old recovering heroin addict with a criminal record, finally got clean and sober, and hit the streets of Baltimore a couple of years ago - not to find a fix, but to find a job. After being turned down numerous times by employers because of his criminal record, he went to an employment agency. The agency found Nelson a job in a downtown hotel as a kitchen utility worker, washing dishes and scrubbing pots. He had the job for 14 months and claimed to have had an exemplary work record.

"Then my background check came up, so they let me go," Nelson told me.

He was angry and frustrated. He didn't understand why he was hired in the first place if his history of petty theft convictions was a problem, or why, given his good work record of more than a year, he was fired once he had proven himself.

I don't know the answer to these questions, either. No one involved in this matter, neither Nelson's immediate supervisor nor the hotel's corporate spokesman to whom I was referred, ever returned a phone call.

Nathaniel Nelson didn't have time for outrage, anyway.

He went back into the hunt for a job and landed a part-time one in a warehouse, paying $8 an hour, within a couple of weeks.

I spoke to him yesterday and discovered that he was still looking for a full-time job.

His story is all too typical in Baltimore - the road back to a healthy, normal life (clean, sober and employed) is packed with obstacles for the ex-offender, even those whose crimes are limited to the nonviolent drug offenses that account for so many law-enforcement arrests in Baltimore and so many inmates in Maryland prisons.

In Baltimore the problem seems to be particularly acute. Many ex-offenders are limited in the search for their jobs by transportation; they usually need to find employment somewhere along a bus route. They also have limited skills. That narrows the employment possibilities for a large chunk of the ex-offender population.

Add another huge factor - companies and small businesses with absolute prohibitions against hiring someone with a criminal history - and there's no wonder the city has such a high rate of unemployment.

We have a fierce human problem in our midst - an estimated 40,000 drug addicts, some 200,000 citizens 16 and older without jobs, between 8,000 and 9,000 men and women returning here from prison every year. Unless Maryland's - not just Baltimore's - employers recognize this long-standing crisis and make an effort to help fix it, even with a limited effort among nonviolent ex-offenders, then this city, and this region, will never hit full economic stride. We will always have in our midst men and women who merely drain government and charitable resources instead of contributing to the community's overall welfare by working, supporting their children and owning homes.

This is one of the toughest nuts to crack: getting large American companies, and small businesses, to think about putting the ex-offender to work.

But it turns out that a lot of companies hire ex-offenders, if not always for altruistic reasons, then to fill in a need by pulling from the immediate, available work force. And Baltimore's immediate, available work force happens to be populated with a lot of men and women with criminal records.

Several companies in Baltimore are plugged into a quiet network of nonprofit agencies that provide job-placement services for the ex-offender. Most of these companies want no public recognition for their efforts. They'd rather not let their customers, other employees and, in some cases, stockholders know that they've put recovering drug addicts and former drug dealers to work.

My pitch today is to the man or woman in a position of influence at a company that needs to hire workers. Your United Way drive is admirable, and your donations to the disaster-relief funds around the world are important. But right in your midst is an opportunity for a lasting contribution to your community - give an ex-con a second chance.

On top of the good feeling, you can get federal income tax credits (as much as $2,400 per worker) for hiring low-income former offenders; fidelity bonds of $5,000 against employee dishonesty or theft by job applicants with criminal records; reimbursement for on-the-job training; and matching funds for customized skills training.

Since June, I've spoken to a few hundred men and women, almost all ex-offenders with histories of drug abuse or drug dealing, who've called here (410-332-6166) looking for help in finding work. I've only spoken to a handful of employers willing to hire them. It's time for a few more of those phone calls. Give me a ring. I'll be glad to hook you up - either with an agency that knows how to make this happen or the men and women desperate for work. No obligation to get your company's name in the newspaper, either. At this point, doing it is more important than doing it with a splash.


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