Tearing Down Barriers to Employment

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — Every day, Dionne Dowdy sees people looking for work. As the executive director of United Returning Citizens, she points them toward resources that can help them re-establish their lives outside of prison, whether it’s with a job, housing or any other problems they face. Sometimes, she says, it’s as easy as providing a space for them to vent their frustrations.

But she also sees the barriers they face in finding work. She sees the same barriers come up time and time again: transportation, legal restrictions and job training.

“People think they’re lazy, that they don’t want to come to work or that they want to be out there on drugs” says Dowdy, who also serves on the jobs and economy council of Taft Promise Neighborhood. “They’re regular people. They want to get up every day and take care of their family.”

Throughout the region, the lack of adequate transportation is signaled as the top concern standing between those seeking work and stable employment that offers a livable wage.

“Business and housing have been moving away from the core. It’s requiring, more and more, that people get to anywhere from anywhere,” says Dean Harris, executive director of the Western Reserve Transit Authority. “All you hear is that businesses need people to get to a job, that seniors need to get to a grocery store. We’re trying to find ways to connect those groups with efficiency and when they need it.”

In 2016, WRTA expanded hourly service to its 11 routes in Youngstown. Since then, it has added lines running to Warren and operated a countywide “destination to origin” service that runs 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays and 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturdays. The bus route map of the agency – including 21 fixed routes Monday through Saturday and six weeknight routes – largely hits the major city corridors, with connecting loops in Boardman, Canfield and Austintown.

About half of WRTA riders are using buses for work-related transportation, Harris says.

“Getting people to jobs is one thing. It’s another thing getting them there on time, when their shifts actually are,” he says. “Second and third shifts are hard just because our system doesn’t have a lot of late night or early service.”

In January, WRTA is hosting public forums to gather suggestions on what it can add or change to its services. That includes, Harris notes, updates to hours of service and routes, which have remained largely unchanged for nearly two decades.

“We’re looking at revamping our whole system, potentially, to better align our fixed routes with where people are, where the jobs are and at what times they’re working,” he says, including the expansion of “first mile-last mile service,” a method that would connect the countywide Dial-A-Ride system to the bus routes.

Part of the reason for the meetings, he continued, is to improve the efficiency of the system and get people where they need to go, whether it be work, a doctor’s appointment or to a store, faster.

“It can take some people an hour and a half to get there by bus or they’re walking or they’re paying people. People having the ability to get where they need to go is huge,” says Michelle Wrona Fox, an attorney at the Youngstown office of Community Legal Aid. “People are desperate to get where they need to go and it’s a snowball effect. They get one [suspension] after another, after another and just get deeper in debt.”

The primary clientele of Community Legal Aid are those at 200% of the federal poverty line or those over the age of 65, regardless of income. Among its most frequent cases are reducing the effect of driver’s license suspensions, including through community service in lieu of fines and adding exceptions for driving to work, and the sealing of criminal records.

Michelle Wrona Fox is with Community Legal Aid.

In October, Ohio state law was revised to allow judges to seal up to five low-level felonies such as assault, breaking and entering, possession of narcotics and grand theft of a motor vehicle, as well as misdemeanors. Felonies are eligible to be sealed three years after the end of punishment – the wait increases with the number of felonies on a person’s record, up to five – and misdemeanors are eligible a year after punishment. Nonconviction records can also be sealed.

“Whenever you’re looking at law enforcement or the medical field, there may still be difficulty getting a license. But it says, ‘Judge me on my abilities and not on this record system.’ People still have their skills,” Wrona Fox says. “With criminal records, some are very aged.”

Another option is the certificate of qualification for employment, or CQE, introduced in Ohio six years ago. It includes an extensive application process, including testimony from judges, prosecutors, witnesses and victims in a case, as well as personal and professional references.

“It was created to fill the gap for people who have criminal records but weren’t eligible to seal them, but really had changed their lives, rehabilitated themselves and want to get a job,” says Community Legal Aid supervising attorney Dawn Spriggs. “It’s like having a judge do a background check to determine that you’re a good candidate for employment. Judges don’t take this lightly.”

In Ohio, roughly one in six residents has some sort of criminal record and there are some 850 “collateral sanctions,” including barriers to work, for those who have been convicted, according to the Ohio Justice & Policy Center.

Beyond showing employers someone is ready and willing to enter the workforce after incarceration, the CQE allows recipients to appear before state licensing boards. Where criminal convictions bar people from getting nursing, teaching or real estate licenses, among others, the CQE provides an opportunity for the board to hear them.

For employers hiring a worker with a CQE, they earn a work-opportunity tax credit, the employee can be bonded and the company can’t be sued for negligent hiring in cases related to that person.

“It’s for someone who’s shown dedication about getting back into the workforce. It’s not a super easy process. It shows forethought and a desire to be employed,” Spriggs says, noting the certificate can be revoked if the person is convicted after receiving it.

With the surge in the use of opioids and the addiction epidemic that followed, new methods are being sought to put those in recovery back into the workforce as well. Drug courts are developing specialized dockets to put people on a path to recovery and give them access to resources that will help them rather than imprison them with no support for when they get out. In a roundtable hosted by The Business Journal over the summer, Mahoning County Common Pleas Court Judge John Durkin said the recidivism rate for those successfully completing drug court was 9%.

Earlier this year, the Youngstown/Warren Regional Chamber put together a list of area businesses and organizations that are willing to hire people in drug recovery. The list was given to the Trumbull County Mental Health and Recovery Board, which in turn provided it to halfway houses it contracts to give to residents who are looking for jobs.

The list includes 10 local groups, including unions such as the Regional Council of Carpenters and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, as well as organizations that can provide help in finding work such as OhioMeansJobs and the Trumbull County Department of Job and Family Services. Also included are 33 national chains, ranging from restaurants to retail to service jobs.

“Employment is one of the top motivators for people staying sober. They want to work. They want to be busy. They want to give back. They want to feel like they make a difference,” says the recovery board executive director, April Caraway. “And employment helps show their families that they’ve changed.”

In her work at United Returning Citizens, Dowdy sees plenty of people who need legal assistance or help after their time in jail is over. But through Taft Promise Neighborhood, there are also larger issues at play.

“We have to address the mental state and not just with pills. We have to do it holistically,” she says of the neighborhood. “They want to be empowered. They want hope. They want to know there’s something out there for them. They want to know they’re a part of the community.”

Part of that is letting people who live in the Taft neighborhood know what’s available to them. The Taft Promise Neighborhood will host five job fairs across the city in 2019. A requirement for employers to appear, says the organization’s executive director, Jonathan Bentley, is that they have current openings. Past fairs have included jobs that range from restaurants to apprenticeships with Ohio Edison paying upward of $60,000 per year during the training, he says.

“There’s a lack of communication about education. I’m sure that if they knew that they had to get a [commercial driver’s license] or welding certificates or basic manufacturing [skills], then they’d do that. Those are livable-wage jobs. But those aren’t known to them,” Dowdy says of the larger issue facing the South Side community.

“All they know is to be a [state tested nursing assistant] or telemarketer, which isn’t everyone’s skill. If you only know about a job at Burger King, that’s frustrating because you aren’t doing what you want to do,” she continues.

Adds Shalise White, housing director at United Returning Citizens, “Half of it is that, but the other half is that the jobs they are getting aren’t paying living wages, so they don’t want them. If you’re doing illegal things and living to a certain standard, you at least want to meet that bare minimum from a job that’s offered.”

In addition to her responsibilities as housing director, White has become the de facto entrepreneurship coordinator of the organization. United Returning Citizens has put a focus on helping clients start their own e-commerce businesses, teaching them to code so they can build websites, how to source products, how to handle logistics and how to market through social media.

“We’re teaching them to build these stores in two or three days. It’s software that’s user-friendly they can actually understand,” White says. “We’re holding their hands through the first couple thousand in profit before they learn how to scale with Facebook ads.”

By and large, Dowdy adds, the clients that do launch their own businesses are good at it and are more than willing to commit to it fully.

“It’s the same things they were doing when they were hustling. They take those same skills they had there and put it to something legal. Some of them are beasts at what they do. They ran their company and ran it well and that’s why they had to go,” she says. “Now, they’re given another product to do that with.”

For those that don’t want to start their own businesses, though, they’re willing to do what it takes to find work, Bentley says, including vocational training and higher education.

“It’s a greatly overlooked population of people who want to work. One of the stigmas around the city is that people don’t want to work. … Within Taft Promise, with that overlooked population, we have to train. It’s not always going to college,” he says. “I told my basketball players and students I mentored, ‘You don’t have to go to college, but you have to do something.’ ”

Jonathan Bentley heads the Taft Promise Neighborhood.

In addition to his position leading the Taft Promise Neighborhood, Bentley is also executive director of the City of Youngstown Human Relations Commission. From that position, he notes that some of the responsibility for finding the right workers falls on employers.

Next year, the city tax incentive review council will revamp its meeting schedule to meet with employers given tax abatements four times a year, up from the current one meeting. Part of the first three meetings will be discussing how companies are doing in meeting their commitment to hire workers from within the city. If they aren’t, Bentley says, they need to be making a good-faith effort to do so.

“If you pledge 25 jobs, I’d like to see 25 city residents in an ideal world. If you can’t hire 25 city residents, what did you do to reach out?” he says. “Did you go to our technical centers – Choffin and MCCTC – and city schools? Did you advertise in The Vindicator, Buckeye Review, Business Journal or job boards at Eastern Gateway? Are you going to job fairs?”

Another issue he sees in connecting with the workforce is the application process. Back in the day, it used to be that “you could pound the pavement,” Bentley says, to find a job. You’d go door-to-door, meet with managers and supervisors, hand them an application and forge some personal connections. Today, most application processes are done digitally. That’s an impediment for a population that doesn’t have reliable internet connections or transportation to somewhere that does, such as branches of the Public Library of Youngstown & Mahoning County.

But perhaps more important, White says, it could serve companies well to reconsider the balance of power during the hiring process. She urges employers to understand the problems her clientele face and work toward accommodating them.

“If you have someone with the skills, you need to look at their needs and what’s stopping you from getting that employee. They look at it as, ‘You need a job and I have the money,’ ” White says. “It needs to be looked at as a win-win situation.”

Pictured above: Dionne Dowdy, executive director of United Returning Citizens, works to help people who have been incarcerated find work.

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.