Interviews end quickly when prospective employers discover Clarence Gosselin Jr. served 12 years for manslaughter.
“It goes about 30 seconds and they say, ‘Well, we can’t hire you,’” he said.
The Mechanic Falls man has been job-hunting since 2010. After prison, he worked under the table as a baker for four years until his restaurant changed management. The new owners refused to keep him on.
Christina Conway supplied alcohol to a minor almost 20 years ago, when she was 21. She’s been repeatedly turned away from summer camp jobs in southern Maine, told she can’t work around kids — what would their parents think? It crushes her.
John Frechette lives in Lewiston with his wife and stepson and has a felony conviction for possession of a firearm by a restricted person. He maintains that the broken .22-caliber was his wife’s, in her car, but he’s never had a chance to explain his side of the story during a job interview.
He doesn’t get in the door, period.
“I haven’t had a real job in four years this October,” Frechette said.
Another man, who was arrested and charged — but not convicted — after a sting targeting public sex in Auburn, says potential employers Google his name and use that against him.
It’s a tough economy. Jobs are tight. Applications are many.
For some with records, or just the implication of wrongdoing, it hasn’t been good.
“If you have two candidates, and one has a blemish on their record, and they’re otherwise equal, my hunch is, why would you even risk picking that candidate?” said University of Maine professor Niclas Erhardt, who teaches human resource management at the business school. "The way a candidate conducts him or herself in an interview is of course important, but a lot of times HR professionals use the past to try to predict how an applicant will behave in the future.”
Hard figures don’t exist for the unemployment rate among those with criminal records, but according to the Department of Labor, it is legal to not hire someone because of a criminal history. That’s not a protected class in Maine.
For those job-seekers there are alternatives, though not all palatable. They can work "off the books" or rely on friends and family for job prospects or support. Turn to welfare. Commit a new crime. Or, increasingly, reach out for help.
From prison to employment
Patti Gray teaches the new Job Search Skills For People With Criminal Backgrounds workshop at the Lewiston CareerCenter. Held the first Friday of every month, more than 50 people have attended since January.
A young pregnant woman, a middle-aged man and a young man with a bold tattoo on his forearm sat in her brightly lit conference room in August.
Gray doesn’t know personal histories and doesn’t prod, but over the hour they come out. Forgery. Breaking and entering. Traffic offenses.
She suggested job-seekers take jewelry out of piercings before interviews. Wear long sleeves. Tell the truth, but don’t over-share. Read up on companies. Believe in themselves.
“Own what you’ve done; it is part of who you are,” Gray said. “Show how you’ve grown and how you’ve improved.”
The young woman told Gray that finding a job was easier for men with records. “My ex has like 20 felonies and he gets employment just like that.”
Gray’s oft-repeated advice: Keep at it.
“You have the same abilities and skills as anyone else,” she said. “Just because you have that hurdle doesn’t mean you can’t apply.”
Kristen Stevens is a job coach for men at the Maine Correctional Center in Windham. The four-year-old Work and Community Ready program will expand to include women next year.
“So many of these gentlemen that go through Work Ready don’t look like what they’ve done,” said Stevens, program coordinator. “Our whole mission is to replace a rap sheet with a resume.”
It’s voluntary, with a 100-hour commitment and a waiting list. During the course, men sit for three mock job interviews with volunteers from the Human Resources Association of Southern Maine.
That first session, “they’re all scared out of their minds,” said Linda Albert, the group’s communications outreach chairwoman. By the third, “they are so polished.”
“For me, the biggest perk has been to see, ‘Somebody from the outside thinks I’m OK,’” Albert said.
Forty-six of the 73 men who have finished Work and Community Ready have found jobs after leaving prison. Stevens said they work as day laborers and in construction, landscaping, seafood companies and restaurants.
“You may not get a call back; it’s not always about your criminal record — sometimes it is,” Stevens said. “You have to be tenacious.”
She said sex offenders can have the hardest time finding work after jail: "Unfortunately, they hold the greatest stigma in our country in how society views their crimes. Warehouses, call centers can be sex offender-friendly."
Only about one-third of the 3,000 people on Maine's Sex Offender Registry indicate they have a job, something that must be reported to the state. It's unclear how many of the rest are disabled, retired or working off the books. State Bureau of Identification Director Matt Ruel, who oversees the registry at the Maine State Police, said employment and difficulty finding work is "nothing we've looked at."
In class, Stevens has reminded inmates to talk up the federal Work Opportunity Tax Credit and the Federal Bonding Program during interviews. The bonding program is a six-month safety net, free to employers, that offers $5,000 in coverage against theft on the job. The tax credit is up to $4,800 for any new hires in one of 12 categories such as unemployed veterans, former felons and people who lost a job in Hurricane Katrina.
Of the more than 10,000 Work Opportunity Tax Credit applications last year in Maine, 44 were for hiring former felons, according to Department of Labor spokesman Adam Fisher.
“We know that having a job makes a huge difference, as far as keeping people out of jail,” he said.
'A huge mountain to climb'
“Robert” has a job, for now.
He lives in Auburn. He’s in his 50s, spent his career in the hospitality industry and last year was charged with unlawful sexual touching. Charges were dropped over the winter. But when he applies for a job, potential employers find the original story of his arrest online. Robert maintains he was at the wrong place at the wrong time.
He collected unemployment for eight months before his most recent job, seasonal work that is slated to end. He’s again facing the possibility of unemployment.
“People aren’t so forgiving,” he said.
He’s looked into getting his arrest record expunged. So, too, has the Rev. Doug Taylor. The Lewiston man was found guilty of assault and robbery more than two decades ago. He paid for his own background check to see what potential employers see. It runs 10 pages.
“They don’t even want you pushing a mop at Lewiston High School,” said Taylor, 42. “I work for a gentleman now who dismisses all of that.”
He bought a home and raised four children with his wife by holding down several $8-an-hour jobs at a time. But they don’t offer insurance or a pension, and he can’t work 60 to 80 hours a week forever.
Expunging his record through a state pardon, “I don’t like to say this as a man of faith, (but) it looks as though it’s an impossibility," Taylor said. "It’s a huge mountain to climb.”
He’s going to try.
Frechette, 41, lost a roofing job while on pretrial probation for the gun felony. He gets a break on rent by shoveling snow and mowing the lawn and accepts under-the-table work through friends. The family receives food stamps. They didn’t when he was working.
He wants back into construction.
“I’m not a people person," Frechette said. "I’m a grunt. I’ll move a mountain rather than sell it to you." When he applied for a flagger job, “not even a call back on that, not even interested.”
Conway lives in Kennebunk. Ten years ago, she spent one summer at a kids’ camp and loved it. The next year, she went back. Halfway through the season, the director pulled her into his office. They’d finally run a background check and spotted the misdemeanor. She couldn’t work there anymore.
“Everybody makes mistakes and sometimes they follow you,” Conway said. “It’s not a reflection of who I am today.”
She isn’t sorry she got caught — it was a good lesson for her 21-year-old self. It does mean no summer camp work, no jobs at nursery schools.
“To this day, it hurts,” Conway said. “You just get to be a big kid (working with the campers). I like being that person. I hate what it’s done to my life.”
Gosselin, 48, said he was “into drugs, heavy” when he shot a man. He worked as a baker under the table for four years after his release from prison in 2002. Jobs have been sporadic since, including two months at a local convenience store in 2010 that ended when that company did a background check.
Since prison, he’s gotten his high school diploma, started attending church and gotten married. At the CareerCenter, Gosselin has gotten help with his resume and interviewing. He receives MaineCare, food stamps and Supplemental Security Income for a traumatic brain injury that goes back to his youth.
“I want to work,” Gosselin said. “When I’m home, I sleep most of the time because there’s nothing else to do.”
He interviewed twice at an Auburn manufacturer this summer. No word yet on whether he’ll get the job.
“Right now, it’s fingers crossed,” Gosselin said. “I see a lot of my friends go back to prison because they don’t have anything out (here.)”
Help finding work
Bates College will host an Employment Opportunities Conference on Oct. 20. Mary LaFontaine of the Lewiston CareerCenter said half of the conference is targeted to job-seekers who believe they have barriers to employment: those with criminal backgrounds, older workers, people with disabilities and refugee and immigrant populations.
The other half is geared toward helping businesses learn how their employment practices might create barriers, as well as some lessons learned, and shared, by local employers.
For job-seekers, there will be workshops on networking, interviewing and job-search skills, as well as time to network with employers at the conference. There will also be a job board with openings posted.
Attendance is capped at 50 job-seekers and 50 employers. The conference is free to job-seekers. Registration is required in advance.
For more information and to register: firstname.lastname@example.org or 753-9094.