MOUNT VERNON — Loyalty. Growth. Acceptance.
Those are the words that participants in Mount Vernon Municipal Court's MERIT Court program heard on a recent field trip to Hot Chicken Takeover in Westerville.
But perhaps the most important words they heard were “second chance.”
Hot Chicken Takeover is a second-chance employer, one who is willing to give individuals who have a criminal record a fresh start.
One of the primary barriers for ex-offenders reintegrating into the community is employment. Research shows that the unemployment rate for those previously incarcerated is 27%.
A fast-food restaurant founded in 2014, HCT goes beyond hiring men and women with records. The company also provides counseling services, cash advances to help employees avoid predatory lenders, and flexible scheduling to accommodate transportation or other home obligations.
“People ask me, can you really support a business with that kind of mission? Yes. We're proving it every day,” Shane Lyell, HCT's chief operating manager, said. “We're proud of what we do. It's not me. It's taking people who come to work every day. What we like to think is that we can set the example for others.
“You can eat anywhere, but you can't get the message anywhere,” he added. “I am proud of this; the treatment team is proud of this.”
Some states have ban the box laws prohibiting employers from asking about an applicant's criminal history on a job application. Ohio is not one of them.
HCT general manager Dana Neer said that “checking the box” is hard, and it is tempting to lie for fear of not getting the job.
“Check the box,” she said. “In my 4 1/2 years here, some of my best employees have had to check that box.”
Lyell does not necessarily advocate for a ban the box law. Instead, he encourages applicants to be straightforward when they see a conviction question on the application.
“At Hot Chicken Takeover, checking the box doesn't disqualify anyone,” he said. “Most understand they can be given a second chance. They don't hesitate to check the box.”
Knox County's experience with second-chance employment
In 2018, Knox County Job & Family Services, through Opportunity Knox, launched the JOBS program (helping prepare for Job Opportunities that lead toward a Bright future of Success), a program specifically designed to address issues faced by ex-offenders.
Employment counselors at Opportunity Knox work with the Mount Vernon municipal (MERIT Drug Court) and Knox County common pleas (ARMOR Court) courts to provide employment support services to individuals previously incarcerated or on probation. Support ranges from job training and communication skills to help with transportation and employer connections.
In 2019, the JOBS program had a 50% success rate.
Because of its established efforts to restore and rehabilitate offenders, in 2019, the state of Ohio asked Knox County to participate in a pilot program called Restored Citizens.
The plan was that a state liaison based at Opportunity Knox would meet with employers to get them to become second-chance employers. Launched in November 2019, the program did not fare well, partly due to employers' initial lack of interest but primarily due to COVID limiting employer outreach in 2020-21. As a result, the program is now on the back burner.
Although COVID protocols affected participation in JOBS, the coronavirus did not stop the program. Brandy Booth, workforce administrator at Opportunity Knox, said that despite the craziness of 2020, the success rate was 38%.
“We realize that 38% doesn't sound like a successful program, but we are talking about people who have learned the skills and the tools to become gainfully employed and maintain their employment and have become productive members of our community,” she said. “The alternative is that folks involved in the criminal justice system who are not given a second chance have a higher incidence of recidivism.”
The next step
In 2022, Knox County will take the next step toward helping restored citizens re-enter the workforce. Using $20,667 from a National Dislocated Worker Grant for Employment Recovery, Opportunity Knox will pay the wages of four people for eight weeks.
“With the experience they gain, hopefully once they have completed the eight weeks they will be hired,” Booth said. “If not, they still have experience and something they can take to another employer. We are excited about it.”
The four individuals must be part of the criminal justice system and meet other criteria as well.
“We really want people who want to succeed. These are precious funds,” Booth said. “If you have even one person that changes their life and improves society, who's now making a positive contribution to the community, that is a success to me.”
“Those success stories will inspire others. That's how things take off and grow,” Teresa Vernon, employment services counselor at Opportunity Knox, added.
Booth said for the program to succeed, it will take everyone working together on logistics such as which shift is better or providing gas vouchers to get the employee to the job.
For Vernon, the missing piece is providing those wrap-around services such as help with transportation.
“We help bring in people with those specific services to help [the restored citizen], because if they are lacking that support, they might not be successful,” she said. “Getting employment and having success is the key. If they do not have that, they are going to go back to their addiction.”
Do second-chance programs work?
“I know it's hard looking for work, especially at first. But about making change, it really is possible. It's definitely possible to achieve what you want.” -- Andrew Gadek, Hot Chicken Takeover employee
If Knox County commits to funding the wages of four restored citizens, what are the chances of success? Do second-chance programs work? Results show that they create a win-win-win scenario:
•For the employer in terms of filling vacant positions
•For the employee in terms of overcoming barriers associated with a criminal record
•For the community in terms of fewer repeat offenders, reduced prison costs, and less reliance on public assistance
The Kroger Company's 2017 pilot program, New Beginnings, reported a 93% retention rate after 18 months. In Richland County, Mansfield Engineered Components discovered an answer to its workforce shortage that results in long-term, loyal employees.
Cincinnati-based Nehemiah Co. found no correlation with increased risk, only high productivity and low turnover. Edwins Restaurant, a Cleveland-based company that trains restored citizens in the restaurant and hospitality trades, reports a 95% employment rate and a less than 1% recidivism rate.
HCT's Lyell also attests to the positive results.
“Our hourly turnover at Hot Chicken Takeover is industry-leading at 50%. It's more than 100% in the [fast-food] industry,” he said. “It's because of the loyalty of the people who get in who are just given a chance. Incredible loyalty comes with it.”
Employees ' testimonies are just as significant as a CEO's perspective — perhaps more so.
Employees like Tiffany Compton who has two felony convictions. She celebrates 4 1/2 years of sobriety and is training to be a general manager at HTC.
“This place gave me the opportunity to grow. They gave me a second chance, and I have been able to do a lot of growing here and be accepted here,” she said. “I'm now able to talk to guests. I can talk about the problems I have had in my past, and nobody judges me. We talk about our past, we talk about our struggles, and we are accepted.”
Andrew Gadek has two drug-related felonies and went through rehab in Virginia. Returning to Ohio, he was waiting to go to his first probation appointment when he heard about HCT.
“I kept looking for a job and had no luck. I applied here because I heard they hired people with records,” Gadek said. “It's really great for me to be able to be open about my troubles. It's a huge issue trying to hide it; you use unhealthy coping mechanisms when you do that.”
A former nurse who lost his license, Gadek completed probation a couple of months ago. He is working to reinstate his license and hopes to have it by summer.
“I am in a really good place right now. I am doing the right things,” Gadek told the Mount Vernon group. “I know it's hard looking for work, especially at first. But about making change, it really is possible. It's definitely possible to achieve what you want.”
“The cool thing about Hot Chicken Takeover is we have a lot of great stories like that. I'm proud of what we do in helping them get back on their feet,” Lyell said. “We sell delicious chicken to create jobs, and that's what it's all about. But they did it. We just gave them a chance to come to work.
“It's a great marriage between people who want a chance and a place to do that,” he added. “It's not about where you have been, it's about where you are going.”
Benefits to employers
For several years, local employers have struggled to find workers. Ramifications from COVID intensified the difficulty. To alleviate the workforce shortage, local employers are taking a second look at restored citizen programs.
“I do believe our employers are a lot more open to hiring this population,” Booth said. “We had labor difficulties prior to COVID. If COVID did not make it worse, it at least highlighted the problem.”
Vernon credits that openness to increased awareness among all agencies involved in rehabilitation, including ARMOR Court, Riverside Recovery Services, and KSAAT (Knox Substance Abuse Action Team), among others.
“All of those are dedicated to increasing the awareness of returning [restored citizens] to the workforce,” she said. “It's people seeing people advocate for that position.”
A few Knox County companies hire restored citizens, but the connection is more of a one-on-one referral rather than the employer intentionally being a second-chance employer. Booth has spent the last 10 months talking with employers about the services Opportunity Knox provides and the benefits of being a second-chance employer.
According to the Second Chance Business Coalition, human resource (85%) and business (81%) leaders report that restored citizens perform the same as or better than employees without a criminal record. Metrics used include lower turnover and increased loyalty and productivity, which save companies money.
Tax incentives also make second-chance hiring attractive. Booth said employers can receive a credit of up to $9,600 per ex-offender hired.
“It's hiring those who are restored citizens, but also anybody receiving public assistance, SSI, or veterans benefits,” Booth said. “The whole idea is to get these people back to work. I think it's making employers aware that these things exist.”
Booth loves that Hot Chicken Takeover and Edwins Restaurant have dedicated their businesses to giving individuals a second chance.
“If Knox County could somehow be inspired to have a business with that same mindset, an inspiration to give these people a second chance … ,” she said. “It benefits everyone: the employer looking for workers, the person who gets work experience, the community which has less crimes. Who loses?”