Disclosure on job applications a challenge to reentry
Gene Gammond was 41 years old when he got his first job.
Gammond, now 46, was thrilled when he was hired as a cook at Burger King after he got out of prison. He started using methamphetamine at about age 13, and the habit led to convictions for a slew of property and drug crimes; he says he has 56 felony arrests on his record.
But after he was sentenced to eight years in prison for identity theft, he completed a yearlong treatment program and headed back to Central Oregon to start anew. Gammond said the chance to talk to the manager at the restaurant made a difference in getting him back on his feet.
“It’s been my experience that once we get in a door, we can prove who we are,” said Gammond, who now works as a mentor assisting people recovering from drug and alcohol addiction at Pfeifer & Associates in Bend. “But just looking on paper, where people see that (criminal history) box, they go on to the next application.”
A bill making it unlawful for employers to require that applicants disclose criminal history prior to an interview is now under consideration by the Oregon Legislature. House Bill 3025, referred to as “Ban the Box,” passed in the Oregon House on Wednesday and next goes before the Oregon Senate.
Proponents of the bill argue that it would provide greater and more equitable opportunities for ex-offenders and wouldn’t prevent employers from asking about criminal histories later in the hiring process.
House Republican Leader Mike McLane, R-Powell Butte, opposed the measure before the House on Wednesday. He argued it would open up more lawsuits against employers and that many companies, such as Wal-Mart and Home Depot, already don’t inquire.
“Now, we’re not talking about an application,” said McLane. “We’re talking about whether an employer inquired into or considered the conviction history of an applicant prior to conducting an interview.”
Meanwhile, local ex-offenders say “the box” is just one barrier to successful re-entry.
Both Gammond and Ariana Walker, 24, of Redmond, not only had to overcome addiction to controlled substances but also had to work hard to find housing, employment and transportation upon release.
After serving a 30-day sentence in jail for a burglary conviction, Walker got clean but struggled to find housing. She was about to land a place, she said, when the landlady asked about her criminal history.
“I told her the story right there in the middle of my future living room,” said Walker. She said at the time of the burglary conviction she was using heroin and drinking heavily, after an unstable adolescence. She grew up in Texas and hitchhiked to Oregon with a boyfriend when she was 19.
Walker didn’t get that apartment. Years later, she now lives with her 18-month-old son in an apartment complex for people recovering from drug and alcohol addiction. “I’m really lucky I have that apartment,” she said. “I applied for low-income housing, but it’s a long list.”
Walker is studying human development at Central Oregon Community College, with plans to transfer to OSU-Cascades. She qualified for work-study employment at COCC but said her application was denied after a background check.
Sally Sorenson, director of human resources at COCC, said that federal criteria require applicants for work-study paid by federal dollars have no felony convictions. “It’s not something where we can try to make an exception,” Sorenson said.
“I have had people hire me based on my current character rather than my past charges,” said Walker on Thursday. Her first employer after release — a sandwich shop — didn’t inquire about her criminal background.
In Central Oregon, the low vacancy rate for rentals poses a significant challenge for Deschutes County’s parolees and probationers, said David Guerrero, a supervisor at Deschutes County Parole and Probation. But he said he doesn’t support “banning the box” from employment applications.
“Regardless if it’s there or not, we’re directing people to make sure they’re being honest and forthright about their history,” said Guerrero. He recounted how one man, released in the dead of winter, went to employers searching for work. “The guy was out there going door to door,” he said. “He got a bike when the snow melted and got a job within a week. It’s really what a person puts into it.”
He feels Central Oregon businesses have been supportive of county parolees and probationers. “It appears the businesses here are really trying to engage our clients,” Guerrero added. “I think they look at the big picture and understand that people are part of the community.”
Bend City Councilor Barb Campbell, who owns a Japanese curiosities shop in downtown Bend, said she doesn’t ask about criminal history on applications.
“We have so many people in our society now, who because of maybe one really bad choice, really bad decision, it’s changed their entire life,” said Campbell. “They just can’t get away from that … I just feel like that box doesn’t give you any actual information about that person.”