Memphis Part of National Movement to Help People Work Despite Criminal Record

The latest data from the Bureau of Labor and Statistics shows Tennessee’s unemployment rate sits stubbornly at 8.4% … a full percentage point above the national average.  This despite increased employment in most other states. The recent shutdown of the federal government has delayed localized unemployment reports; however, if the most recent local numbers from August are any indication, Memphis has the one of the highest unemployment rates among large metropolitan cities.

So imagine your chances of securing a decent job in Memphis …  if you have a criminal record?

Lines of people seeking help at the TN Dept. of Correction's first re-entry fair. October 2013.
Lines of people seeking help at the TN Dept. of Correction’s first re-entry fair. October 2013.

In 2010, the City of Memphis passed a “Ban the Box” ordinance that removed the box on job applications requiring applicants to check whether they have been convicted of a felony.  The law only applies to employment applications with the City of Memphis. As is the case with other similar legislation, employers can still conduct criminal background checks, but removal of the felony checkbox prevents applicants from being screened without consideration for their qualifications, character or the nature of the conviction.

Local and state governments across the U.S. have joined the “Ban the Box” movement. Earlier this year, Rhode Island became the eighth state to pass such legislation.

Watch this powerful video about Rhode Island’s campaign to “Ban the Box

In October, Target announced it would remove questions about criminal history from its job applications. This falls in line with a recent EEOC update stating that employment cannot be denied based entirely on past arrests or criminal convictions. According to the EEOC, before denying someone a job based on a criminal record, employers must consider the relevance of the crime to the current job, amount of time lapsed since the charge and, most importantly, the seriousness of the crime.

According to the Department of Justice, one in three Americans have been arrested before the age of 23. It gets worse when you consider statistics from the National Employment Law Project, which show that one in four U.S. citizens have arrests or convictions that can hinder their ability to secure work …  for the rest of their lives.

Memphis City Council member Lee Harris wants the City of Memphis to take a more significant step toward leveling the playing field.  Harris is considering a proposal to require City of Memphis construction contractors to hire people who have served time for felonies.  The plan would require contractors to give 10% of their work to those who have difficulty finding employment, such as people with felony records and those from low-income families .  The ordinance would only apply to contractors granted construction bids of more than $100,000. The exact requirements of Harris’ proposal are still uncertain, but the desire to work among some who have already served their time is certain.

At the state level, Tennessee State Senator Brian Kelsey has recently announced that he will introduce legislation to create a Certificate of Employment Restoration. If successful, Tennesseans with old, non-violent felonies would be able to petition a judge for the certificate, which could help them find employment.

Also, the Tennessee Department of Corrections held its first re-entry fair in Memphis in October.  The Pipkin Building at the Mid-South Fairgrounds was packed with people seeking to find employment, gain training or clear old court debt.

April Buckner, the organizer of the event for the TDOC said the turnout at the October event demonstrated a desperate need for employment opportunities.

“We can either assist them to make sure they get the resources they need so they become  law-abiding, productive citizens.” said Buckner. “Or we can sit here and do nothing. Then the only thing they have to go back to is the life they are trying to get away from.”