Criminal history hinders many job searchers who have served time in jailNaDonte Jones, the only black master plumber in Syracuse, according to the Onondaga County Plumbing Control, says he never had a problem finding work — despite having a criminal record. In fact, for him, prison time provided the training for his career. But that’s not true for many others who have served their sentences and who start their job searches burdened with a criminal history. Jones says his uncle is a computer engineer, and even though he is good at what he does, the felony on his record has made it difficult for him to find a job. “[My uncle] told me numerous times that he gets an interview, it goes well, he’s excited, they’re excited, then just before he starts they do a background check, and nope, no job,” Jones said. “I’m not trying to make excuses for people — you messed up — but you did it, you move on, and the whole purpose of jail is supposed to be rehabilitation, but it just follows you.”
A master plumber is the highest level of licensed plumbing one can attain. There are three major steps most plumbers aspire to — apprentices, journeymen and master plumbers. In Onondaga County, a plumber must be a licensed master plumber to own a plumbing business.
Incarceration by the NumbersCriminal records can stand in the way of successful re-entry after imprisonment, according to The Sentencing Project. The Project explains that “having a criminal record can present obstacles to employment, housing, public assistance, education, family reunification, building good credit, and more.” But, just like concentration of poverty, minority communities are disproportionately affected by incarceration. Black men are six times more likely to be incarcerated than white men, while Hispanic men are 2.5 times more likely to be incarcerated than white men, according to data analysis by The Sentencing Project. Incarceration is a major barrier to employment and public assistance, and it is a major contributor to poverty in the U.S. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate in 2015 was 4.8 percent for everyone 16 years and older. Broken down by race, unemployment was 8.8 percent for blacks or African Americans, 3.8 percent for Asians and 6.2 percent for Hispanic or Latinos, compared to 4.1 percent for whites.
Work Despite a Criminal HistoryJones spent 10 months in the Onondaga County Department of Correction in Jamesville, New York, on a drug-selling conviction in 1996. He went back in 1999 for eight months, again on a drug-selling conviction. He spent one year in two New York state prisons — Altona Correctional Facility and Lakeview Shock Incarceration Correctional Facility — in 2004, also on drug charges. But while he was in jail, Jones earned his GED and completed a BOCES training program that got him into plumbing. Jones says his criminal record has “never once” affected his work. The plumbing industry is “at the bottom of the barrel, so people don’t care,” he said. Jones started his own business, N.J. Jones Plumbing, which usually handles two or three plumbing jobs a week, depending on the size of the job, he said. But, ideally, he and his three employees would like to take on bigger jobs that require a week or two of work. Charges for plumbing services are by the hour, usually between $80 and $125, plus the cost of materials, he said. But bigger construction projects are estimated and then charged by the job. In 2015, Jones’ business made about $250,000 in revenue and $70,000 in profit, he said, with his personal salary ending up around $22,000; the rest went to personal expenses. Jones says that salary amount is enough for him and his family, and he just feels lucky to have found something that he loves doing and that gives him work. Jones knows firsthand that many people, especially youth, get involved in selling drugs because that’s their environment. He explained that even though he had training as a plumber, he continued to sell drugs — and went back to jail — simply because he needed the money. “I have five kids, that’s a lot of child support,” he said. His children, however, have no reason to get involved in drug activity, Jones says, because they have him to support them, and not just financially. He wants them to see his experiences and mistakes and to learn from them. Jones also wants to teach his children the right way to do things. But, he says, if they make a mistake, they must deal with the consequences, just as he did.
Ban the BoxIncreasingly, employers are using criminal records as a way to immediately narrow applicants, but legislators across the country and here in Syracuse are changing that. The Syracuse Common Council passed a Ban the Box ordinance with an 8-1 vote in December 2014. The law prohibits employers from asking about an applicant’s criminal history until later in the application process and is intended to provide ex-convicts, like Jones, a chance at getting a job and re-entering society successfully. After no response from Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner, the law automatically went into effect in March 2015.
The law applies only to the city and all contractors working with the city. However, it is difficult to see if companies are abiding by the law, says Alan Rosenthal, counselor at the Center for Community Alternatives in Syracuse. He says the city itself has been quick to rewrite job applications to remove the box, but that the city has not provided a public list of contractors so “it’s been nearly impossible to enforce the law or determine if someone’s in violation.” A Ban the Box city audit, submitted Jan. 5, 2016, by the Syracuse City Auditor, confirmed that all city job applications comply with the law’s requirements. Additionally, the auditor requested a random sample of 50 vendors that work with the city to submit their current employment applications. Of those, 33 responded, and all of those were in compliance with the law. The status of the other 17 that did not respond is unknown.
Ban the Box refers to banning the box on job applications that asks about an applicant’s criminal history. Ban the Box prohibits employers from asking about applicants’ criminal records until late in the application process. In Syracuse, the ordinance requires city contractors and other contractors doing business with the city to wait until a tentative job offer to ask about the applicant’s criminal history.
A recent study in Durham, North Carolina, showed that the legislation is working to eliminate discrimination based on criminal records. A study by The Southern Coalition for Social Justice found that since the law was implemented in 2011, the percentage of people hired by the city with criminal records increased from just over 2 percent to over 15 percent in 2015. Similarly, in Honolulu, Hawaii, a study published in June 2015 by the American Journal of Criminal Justice found that the number of people accused of felonies who already had a criminal record was substantially reduced after the implementation of Ban the Box in 1998. Researchers recommended other cities and states implement similar laws to make it easier for ex-convicts to get jobs, thus reducing the likelihood of repeat offenses and, therefore, reducing crime. But for those people who have served time and then encounter barriers to jobs, Jones has this advice: “Change your people, places and things.” He says this is “crucial because that’s probably what put someone in that situation in the first place. The key is the person has to want to change and want to be better.”
As of March 1, 2016, some 21 states have adopted Ban the Box policies. Many city and local governments have passed similar legislation as well.
States regulate the licensing requirements for journeymen and master plumbers. In New York state, there are a few options for obtaining a master plumber’s license, but all require some sort of education or training program and years of working under a journeyman or master plumber. Onondaga County regulates licenses in both the county and the city of Syracuse. There are 105 licensed master plumbers in Onondaga County/Syracuse.
Jones completed a plumbing training program through BOCES while in jail, and then worked as a registered apprentice for five years. He applied for a journeyman’s license and worked as a licensed journeyman plumber for five years. He worked under a master plumber despite having a criminal record. Jones then took the master plumber test, which includes a written exam and a practical application section. Soon after, he started N.J. Jones.