BOB CONFER: Experiencing a labor shortage? Ban the box.

Bob Confer

Employers across the country have been hit with a labor shortage.

As the economy reopens in whole, it seems that no one can find willing and able workers. It doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about retail, hospitality, manufacturing, or back office, every workplace is wanting. That has led to dramatic supply chain issues such as shortages, delays and inflation. It has also caused many restaurants to cut back on tables, hours and even days in order to keep, and keep sane, what workers they do have.

Businesses have gotten creative in their efforts to fill payrolls. They’ve instituted everything from higher wages to more benefits to flexible schedules. Still, the shortage persists.

Some of those employers in dire need would be well-served by hiring workers who are right under their nose, workers that they may even turned up their noses to: Those with criminal records.

It’s prime time for businesses to ban the box when it comes to their hiring practices.

There’s been for some years now a “ban the box” movement spearheaded by civil rights groups that is aimed at persuading employers to remove from their applications the check box that asks if applicants have a criminal record. The use of that initial disqualification for any position under the sun has forced many human resources managers to look at one-time lawbreakers as having the plague.

In some municipalities, banning the box is more than a suggestion, it’s the law. Buffalo, Rochester and New York City, for example, all have laws on the books prohibiting that line of questioning, joining 150 cities and counties having such laws in place.

It’s rather unfortunate that these laws exist. Interviewing and/or hiring individuals with criminal backgrounds should be at the sole discretion of the employer.

Most employers should have such openness and willingness in their HR toolbox. They’ll discover that when they are given that chance to work, those with checkered pasts succeed. They want to overcome their histories. They want to make good on their lives. They want to raise perfect families. They want to contribute to society. They want to work.

Ex-cons and individuals on probation have been some of my best coworkers. The determination they possess to become new men, to stay clean and better themselves (and their families) furnishes an incredible work ethic. At one point in time, maybe 10 years ago, over a quarter of my workforce had criminal records and about a third of that group had considerable prison time under their belts.

I see the value in society’s investment in ex-convicts (the U.S. prison system costs taxpayers $300 billion per year) and cherish the redemption and reformation of men when given steady, gainful employment and hope.

Some detractors will says that within five years of release, about three-quarters of released prisoners are rearrested. I would argue, though, that it may be attributed to the stigma employers have placed upon them. Here in New York, more than 60% of ex-cons remain unemployed one year after their release because of their records. A return to crime is a self-fulfilling prophecy by and for the society that denies opportunity to those who want it and deserve it.

One in three American adults has a criminal record. While felonies and hard crimes represent a smaller percentage of that total, who are we to judge?

Employers should judge for themselves. This shortage is as good time as any to rethink their employment practices and change their views of the men and women who were once deemed “unworthy.” They’ll find that hiring the formerly un-hirable will do more than benefit their businesses, it will greatly help that individual and society, too.

There may be a shortage in labor, but there should never be a shortage of heart.

Bob Confer of Gasport is the vice president of Confer Plastics Inc. Email him at bobconfer@juno.com.

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