As 1,500 job seekers filed through Southwest’s Arena Stage for a job fair on Friday, organizers paid close attention to the attendees with the worst chances of finding work — those with criminal backgrounds.
About half of D.C.’s previously incarcerated people, also called “returning citizens,” are jobless, according to studies cited by the D.C. nonprofit Council for Court Excellence.
Ward 6 Councilman Tommy Wells and the theater organize the annual fair and this year welcomed companies open to applicants with criminal records.
Kevin Grover, a 43-year-old who spent eight years in prison in the 1980s, said he has been struggling to find work since he lost a job working for Metro in 2010. Most employers set his application aside when they see he has a criminal record, he said.
“Even if you have 20 years experience, your background is the first thing they’re going to look at,” said Grover.
Grover attended the fair — which was open to all — hoping to find a maintenance job, but said he would take any work he could find.
Returning citizens shouldn’t be excluded from opportunities, Wells said. “They’ve done their time and paid their debt to society.”
Wells introduced legislation this year that bars employers from asking about candidates’ criminal backgrounds until they make a conditional job offer. This so-called “ban the box” initiative was signed into law in August.
“The two biggest challenges these people face are finding a job and getting housing,” he said. “This bill gives people a better shot.”
Companies recruiting at the fourth annual fair included Big Bus Tours, Harris Teeter and Clark Construction.
Deborah Evans-Atkins, who represented USPS, said that before Wells’ law went into effect, her office did not immediately eliminate candidates with criminal records. She declined to describe USPS’s criteria in evaluating ex-offenders.
Nonprofits and other government agencies also had tables at the fair. And many returning citizens provided their information to the city’s Office of Returning Citizen Affairs, which advocates on their behalf.
In addition to needing help finding work, returning citizens face challenges finding housing, said Victor Battle, an ORCA workforce development specialist. He said he was denied housing six times because of his own criminal record.
“We have to bring opportunity to their level,” he said. “A lot of time they think it’s out of reach.”