Shirome Owens of Baltimore has been a part of Center for Urban Families's STRIVE pre-employment screening service for years.
After serving 18 years for attempted murder, Tyrone Arrington wanted to find a job and make his daughter — a toddler when he was convicted — proud.
But the Baltimore man, who apprenticed as a meat cutter in prison, had reason to worry.
"Talking to people that went home prior to me, everybody kept telling me they couldn't find a job and all the doors were closed on them," said Arrington, 42.
With the help of a West Baltimore employment center, Arrington landed two job offers after just a few weeks home — one from a supermarket, the other from a poultry plant. He took a job as a meat cutter apprentice at Whole Foods and was promoted a year later to department manager.
Arrington benefited from an economy in need of skilled workers at a time when employers' views are shifting when it comes to hiring ex-offenders.
"Hiring folks who've been previously incarcerated has become a movement," said Gerald B. Grimes of the Re-Entry Center, the agency in the city's Northwest Career Center at Mondawmin Mall that helped Arrington find work.
Now, a coalition of trade groups — including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, National Retail Federation and the National Restaurant Association — have backed a national initiative to include people with criminal records in their recruiting and hiring. The organizations say they represent employers of more than half of the U.S. workforce.
The "Getting Talent Back to Work" pledge, unveiled earlier this year with practical tips for employers, stemmed from passage of the First Step Act, bipartisan legislation passed by Congress in December to expand re-entry opportunities for incarcerated men and women. The nearly 700,000 people released from prison in the United States each year should not be "re-sentenced" by employers, the pledge says. One in five job seekers in the Baltimore region reported in a Greater Baltimore Committee study in 2016 that their criminal record was a barrier to employment.
"This is a group we, as business leaders, cannot afford to overlook," said Johnny Taylor, CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management. "By encouraging employers to give them a chance, we can help close the skills gap and break the cycle of recidivism."
Applicants with criminal records have long been mostly limited to construction or trucking jobs. But opportunities are expanding — at restaurants, retailers, hospitals and technology firms. The pledge initiative noted that Johns Hopkins Medicine has hired hundreds of people with records, many for jobs involving patient care.
The Northwest Career Center has helped find work for hundreds of people with criminal backgrounds. (Barbara Haddock Taylor, Baltimore Sun video)
A tight labor market is prompting employers to rethink whether a criminal background should signal who might make a good or bad employee. "If you eliminate a third of the work force, that makes it very difficult for firms to find workers," said Jeremy Schwartz, associate professor of economics at Loyola University Maryland's Sellinger School of Business.
That's not to say attitudes have completely changed.
"For some employers, it's a total turnoff," said Eric Mayo, an Atlantic City, N.J.-based consultant and speaker who helps ex-cons find jobs. "There are a lot of problems that come with running a business. Some feel If I hire someone with a criminal record, it's just another headache I'm going to have."
At the same time, "certain labor pools are shrinking, so many employers are turning to previously incarcerated people," Mayo said.
When Grimes approaches employers for the first time, he tells them he can help solve problems of high turnover and skilled worker shortages. Employers often are apprehensive about potential public relations problems, he says, but become more accepting as they see good results.
Slowly but surely, he says, more employers are tapping into the center's pipeline of applicants. Through a contract with the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, the center screens, trains and places about 400 ex-offenders in jobs each year.
"There are employers who still have archaic notions about people who have criminal background issues, but that group is getting smaller and smaller," Grimes said.
At Whole Foods in Harbor East, Arrington cuts meat, helps customers, and trains and manages workers in his department. His conviction on attempted murder charges in April 2000 stemmed from an argument in his Reservoir Hill neighborhood that escalated. Arrington, who was 22 then, says he intervened when some younger kids were bullied. It ended with Arrington shooting and injuring a man. He received a 33-year sentence.
At the Maryland Correctional Institution in Hagerstown, he tackled what he calls his "attitude problem."
"I figured it was time to do something with myself," Arrington said. "The way I was born, either I'd spend the rest of my life in prison or I was going to wind up dead. … I enrolled in as many programs as I could."
Arrington found he excelled as a meat-cutting apprentice. He stayed out of trouble and was granted parole. Once home, he found his way to the Mondawmin career center, which helped him craft a resume and look for jobs.
"I wanted to show my daughter I made a mistake," he said. "I didn't want her to fail. … I wanted to lead by example once I came home."
When Whole Foods posts a job, it typically attracts as many as 150 applicants, who are pared down to 25 candidates. At least one of those usually has a criminal background, company officials say. Applicants who acknowledge felony convictions are screened through internal guidelines that consider the type of felony and the length of time since it occurred.
"Tyrone came in with an amount of training and experience that is something we look for in a lot of candidates, and we were excited to have him come through," said Kim Tate, manager of the Harbor East store. "Tyrone was upfront about his background and talked about his training and goals. He let us know it is a piece of my past I'm not running from, but it's not something I intend to repeat.
"He's been an excellent team member for us. Having someone like Tyrone opens eyes in general."
Arrington helped pave the way for jobs at the store for four other men who were incarcerated with him. He works a second job at another supermarket chain and is close to his daughter, a college graduate pursuing a career as a dental assistant.
"I'm trying to show other people that there's other ways to make it out here," he said.
When Bertha Farnum started a hospitality staffing firm in Baltimore three years ago and needed reliable employees, she sought out ex-offenders.
The president of Quality Coverage has found a steady flow of temporary workers through the Re-Entry Center. Some of the bartenders, cooks, servers, stewards and concession workers Farnum hires to staff events have been hired for permanent jobs by clients such as the Baltimore Convention Center and the Johns Hopkins University.
Farnum previously worked as a human resources director for several national retail and restaurant chains, where she sometimes hired people with records. "They wanted to be successful because of the various hiccups they had gone through," she said. "They were looking for someone to give them a chance."
Many Maryland retailers hire people with records, especially amid low unemployment and worker shortages, said Cailey Locklair Tolle, president of the Maryland Retailers Association.
In Maryland, private employers can ask about an applicant's criminal record or history, though the state is among 33 with "ban-the-box" statutes affecting state hiring. That means agencies can't ask whether someone has a criminal record until later in the application process. A bill before the General Assembly, opposed by some business groups, would prohibit employers with 15 or more full-time workers from running a records check or requiring an applicant to disclose a record before a conditional job offer is made.
"For the most part, many retailers large and small and in all different regions typically are willing to give people a chance," Tolle said.
But most don't openly advertise it. Mayo lists employers on his website who have been known to give felons a shot at a job, from pool installers and landscapers to hotels and restaurant chains.
Some convictions are harder to work with than others, with sex crimes or crimes with a weapon topping the list, Mayo said.
He tells job seekers who attend his seminars to apply for every job they might qualify for and not to "eliminate yourself" from consideration. "Let someone else do that," he said.
More than half the clients who enroll in job readiness programs at the Center for Urban Families in Northwest Baltimore have criminal records. The center's three-week Strive program covers soft skills such as self-motivation, work ethic and problem-solving, attitude adjustment and "how to be a professional and a great employee," said Catherine Pitchford, director of programs.
The idea is to lead people beyond entry-level jobs toward careers.
Otherwise, "people go back to how they got a record in the first place," Pitchford said. "We want to offer them real positions."
Just a few years ago, Bobbi Lewis had a dim view of her future. The 40-year-old, convicted on theft charges in 2013 in Wicomico County, served nine months of a five-year sentence at the Maryland women's prison in Jessup, then a year's home detention in Baltimore, hours away from her three children on the Eastern Shore.
She spent five months looking for work to no avail.
"I always got interviews. I had a good employment history and good reputation with my previous employer," said Lewis, who had worked for a seafood company and a home nursing agency.
But once companies heard she had a record, "that was it," she said. "I had a criminal history background, but that doesn't explain the person I am today. I've learned from my mistakes."
After completing Urban Families' Strive program in 2016, she found her life on the upswing. She volunteered at the center, then became an intern. The center offered her a full-time receptionist job and in May she moved up to the finance department. She's relocated her family to Parkville and has repaired her credit enough to pursue buying a house.
"They don't give up on you," she said of the center, now her employer. "Everyone always deserves a second chance. … It's what they do with that second chance."