US firms turn to former criminals to fill jobs amid labour shortage

Prisoners, ex-convicts and former drug addicts snapped up by US employment market

Free to work: a 2 per cent unemployment rate in the Elkhart, Indiana area means many firms that have never before hired inmate workers have started to do so.

Free to work: a 2 per cent unemployment rate in the Elkhart, Indiana area means many firms that have never before hired inmate workers have started to do so.


Labour shortages in the US midwest are prompting more employers to hire prisoners, ex-convicts and former drug addicts as they relax recruitment standards to fill vacancies, especially in the booming manufacturing and construction industries.

Human resources experts in the region said some companies were starting to waive drug tests, while others were increasingly willing to skip or delay criminal background checks in a bid to compete for scarce labourers. Many such employers turn a blind eye to whether new hires were previously treated for drug abuse or are still in treatment.

“The dynamics of the economy require a new approach, employers have to open the aperture to bring in people from the sidelines, whether they be ex-offenders or retirees,” said Becky Frankiewicz, North America president at ManpowerGroup, the recruitment company.

US manufacturing has added nearly 260,000 jobs over the past year, according to the US Bureau of Labour Statistics, and Manpower said hiring demand in the construction industry was at an 11-year high. The US jobless rate stands at 3.8 per cent.

Some US states have passed so-called “ban the box” laws that force employers to delay criminal background checks until later in the application process. But even in states that do not have such laws, more employers are delaying background checks voluntarily and disqualifying only offenders who have committed sex-related felonies.

Background checks

“We’re seeing a lot of employers bringing in employees while background checks are pending, to get people working before background checks are finalised,” said Ms Frankiewicz.

Demand for workers is so high in Elkhart, Indiana – unofficial capital of the US recreational vehicle manufacturing industry – that many local RV makers and their suppliers are hiring not just ex-offenders but also those serving sentences.

“We have had several workers who were convicted murderers,” said Susan Droptiny, human resources manager at Elkhart Plastics, which supplies some parts to motorhome makers.

“It started out pretty simple: we just needed people,” she said. “There is a lot of competition here for workers” due to the RV boom of the past two to three years.

“Some have ended up being our best employees, they want that second chance, they work hard and they are here every day, it’s been such a positive experience for us,” she said, noting that a criminal record was not a box on her company’s job application form. A criminal-background check was eventually done on every employee, but only those convicted of a sex-related crime were automatically disqualified. Ex-offenders got the same pay and benefits as other staff.

Inmate workers

Sherm Johnson, director of offender employment development for the Indiana department of corrections, said the 2 per cent unemployment rate in the Elkhart area meant that many companies that have never before hired inmate workers had started to do so.

The local South Bend Work Release Centre, which provides serving inmates to local employers, “is experiencing tremendous demand from employers” he said, adding that “these companies are paying wages of $15-$16-$17 per hour and more to our workers”.

Western-Michigan based Cascade Engineering has a “returning citizens” scheme to employ previously incarcerated workers, modelled on a “welfare to career” programme started 20 years ago.

“We believe these people are another source of talent that is untapped,” said Keith Maki, director of communications. He said 13-14 per cent of the company workforce were either former welfare recipients or former convicts, and he estimated job retention of ex-offenders at 90 per cent. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018