SC company gives convicted felons a second chance

Businessman Gary Allen Washington’s new company name is straightforward: Felons R Us.

So much so that his request in April for a license to operate the moving company was at first denied by the City of Columbia. The full city council later overrode that decision.

As the company name proclaims, Washington, who owns several enterprises in the city, hires people with felony records – nonviolent only – to move furniture for businesses or families.

If 8 percent of the workforce in South Carolina still is searching for work five years after the start of the Great Recession, conditions for people who have employment issues are even tougher.

Besides criminal records, issues range from gaps in work histories to poor credit – and a lot more.

Ex-offenders and others with employment issues applying for work must first be honest with employers about their records without offering too much detail – or any sob stories, said Sarah Trice, Midlands Technical College student employment services director. They should take responsibility for their actions, while assuring the employer they have learned from the mistake and can offer value to their company, she said.

“What they really want in each of these situations is someone who is going to be upfront with them, and not be cagey,” Trice said. “It (should) always go right back to what are my skills, what are my accomplishments, and how can I add value.”

Take gaps in employment history, for instance.

“That’s a biggie, but that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a bad thing,” Trice said. “Almost everybody has gaps at some time.”

Given today’s economy, gaps could occur due to a return to school, or to raise children, or to give care to a family member, among other legitimate reasons.

It is most important to account for skills and accomplishments gained during the gap, Trice said.

“Another big one is credit,” Trice said, “but there is hope.” Having bad credit does not make a person a bad worker, but a job candidate must be prepared to give a valid reason for the credit blemish, Trice said.

That might go back to a job loss or other family tragedy, ranging from an acute sickness to loss of a home or a divorce, she said.

“The thing is, they need to tell the employer what they’re doing about the credit,” Trice said. “And again, (try to) bring it right back to the skills and accomplishments they can bring to the job and not focus on the poor credit – but be honest.”

Firings also are among the issues that can frustrate the new job search process, Trice said. While some dismissals are for cause, others are unjust, she said, and leave a certain amount of shame and guilt to be dealt with before being successful elsewhere.

“They can’t go in to a (potential) employer if they haven’t personally resolved the issue,” Trice said. Otherwise, “They bring anger, they bring bitterness, they’re distraught and they bring that in. The (new) employer is saying, ‘Why should I bother with this?’” Trice said.

“Give a good reason and don’t get bogged down.”

Felons – those convicted of the most serious of crimes – have perhaps the biggest hurdle to overcome, usually carrying a job shadow for life, Washington says, one devoid of second chances.

“Some of the people we engage for moving furniture and lawn maintenance, they’re 25 to 30 years (away from) a felony from fighting someone at 22 years old,” Washington said. “Now they’re 45 or 50 years old, but that same felony will stop them from working with UPS. They can’t get a job at the state (of South Carolina). They can’t even go on a military installation.

“They are literally locked out, based on an incident that they recognize was wrong, paid for through incarceration, and yet it’s still tagged to them,” Washington explained. “So how else do we sustain our economy on fairness and opportunity if 35 to 40 percent of our minority brothers are ineligible to work?”

Established about six months ago, Felons R Us is a mission for Washington, who strongly believes in second chances based on the biblical story of Jonah. God gave Jonah a second chance to follow a specific command given him, after his initial refusal to obey, according to scripture.

Felons R Us partners with three sources for job candidates, including the South Carolina Department of Probation, Parole and Pardon Services, Christ Central Ministries and the S.C. Department of Employment and Workforce. Before he hires, all candidates are screened via a full background check and drug test. They are then trained by the company in moving skills and customer service, and they are strictly supervised on the jobs by non-convicted supervisors.

He keeps his company government-bonded and carries worker’s compensation and general liability insurance coverage. And Washington set up his company as a nonprofit organization, allowing its customers to claim an 18 percent tax deduction against the moving rate he charges.

The felons cannot work, however, on contracts he has with state or federal entities, he said.

In addition to success for ex-felons who truly want a second chance, Washington hopes to lure more companies into presenting these ex-offenders with job opportunities.

Prison officials say McDonald’s, Hardees, Lizard’s Thicket and a few construction companies in the state regularly hire ex-cons.

Many more should, however, said Washington. “The system today to expunge or to remove a felony off your record is very difficult,” he said. “It almost requires an act of the governor himself.”

Working with a state elected leader, Washington said he has developed a larger list of about 16 companies in the state who will hire felons, but he appeals for more of them.

There are ways for those with criminal convictions to put them in the past, but the road is hard.

The state’s Youthful Offender Act, for example, was legislated and specifically designed to give young offenders the tools necessary to rehabilitate, return to the community and become employed, productive residents, said Ginny Barr, state Youthful Offender Parole & Re-entry Program division director.

If the youthful offender stays out of trouble for five years after release, they can even have their criminal records expunged, she said, so the mark is removed from their permanent records.

“They have to apply,” though, Barr said. “Usually – if there is a hurdle – there’s a cost involved in an expungement (usually around $250). And, someone has to have the wherewithal to go to the solicitor and make the request. Unfortunately, often these young folk don’t have the gumption to do that,” Barr said.

Someone must also remember to do it, she said. “Who is going to ring the bell after five years?” Barr asked.

The stakes are high. Between 1,000 and 1,200 incarcerated youth go through the program each year, officials said, and are eligible to apply for expungement.

Also, men and women incarcerated in South Carolina have access to pre-release programs at some jails, such as Manning Correctional Institute in Columbia.

Preparations for release span such needs as education – where getting a high school diploma or GED may be the focus, or vocational training, to learn a trade such as landscaping.

Re-entry programs include training in life skills, religious programming, job coaching and panel discussions by ex-offenders to let inmates know the range of obstacles they will face when they get out. Obstacles often include being shunned by family members, having little to no money, no transportation and no interview appropriate clothing.

“All the things we take for granted, they don’t have. And then, on top of all that, you’re a felon. You’ve got a criminal record. How do you sell that to an employer?” Manning Warden Sandra Barrett said.

The answer is, you’re going to have the door shut in your face several times before someone finally says come on in and let’s talk, said Barrett.