Employers: Gatekeepers to Opportunity, Employment & Successful Reentry


Melissa Young, Quintin Williams, Lisa Hampton (Leaders Up), Miguel Cambray and Chris Warland at the Business Executives Association meeting in Chicago, IL.

By Melissa Young, Director of Heartland Alliance’s National Initiatives on Poverty and Economic Opportunity and Quintin Williams, Field Building Manager for Heartland Alliance’s National Initiatives on Poverty and Economic Opportunity

At Heartland Alliance, we see the unjust impacts that the overreach of the criminal justice system has in the lives of those we serve and millions of others across the country every day. In Illinois, nearly 5 million adults (nearly 50%) have an arrest or conviction record, which create substantial barriers to work, housing, and well-being.

The federal, state, and local laws restricting rights and opportunities for people with a criminal record create a tightly woven web of barriers. These “collateral consequences” of having a criminal record can affect nearly every aspect of a person’s life – often indefinitely. All told, there are over 48,000 collateral consequences etched in statute or regulation for people who have a criminal record across the United States.[i] In Illinois, there are nearly 1,500 constraints on rights, entitlements, and opportunities on the books for individuals with a criminal record, many of which deny or restrict access to employment opportunities.[ii]

These impacts show up during the search for housing, when many are denied a roof over their heads due to their records. It shows up in education, where many post-secondary schools outright deny access to enrollment for persons with a criminal record or individuals are discouraged from applying because they see a big, bold box asking about their criminal background. And it shows up, consistently, in access to employment. Individuals are denied occupational licenses, barred from entire occupations or fields of practice, and often can’t even get in the door for a job interview as a result of being justice involved.

We recognize that in order to open doors to employment for people who have been justice involved we must dismantle the laws and restrictions standing in the way of economic and social equity as well as work directly with employers to widen doors of opportunity. That is why a few members of our team and other partners, met with the Business Executives Association of Chicago (BEA) last month. Employers are powerful gate keepers to jobs and opportunity and we saw our conversation with the BEA as chance to bring to light the scope and scale of the justice system, illuminate stories of those that have been directly impacted, and talk about how employer practices can widen doors to opportunity for people who have been justice involved.

Here is just some of the ground we covered during our meeting with BEA members:

  • Nationally, over 70 million people have a criminal record. That’s 1 in 3 adults. The criminal justice system touches many millions of people across the country directly and indirectly. Our team members lifted up their lived experience of the criminal justice system by telling their own personal stories about the impact of the criminal justice system on their lives.
  • BEA members were shocked at the sheer number of collateral consequences on the books in Illinois. Collateral consequences denying and restricting access to employment and education – in particular – perpetuates poverty and inequity in communities.
  • Removing barriers to work for returning citizens helps local economies, increases public safety, and gives employers the opportunity to find valued workers. We underscored for BEA members that especially given the tight labor market, employers have an imperative to support access to job opportunities for this group of workers in order to sustain and grow their business.
  • Under EEOC guidelines, employers have a responsibility to review current hiring practices and, as needed, adopt more inclusive practices as it relates to hiring and screening individuals with criminal records for available job opportunities.  Guidelines and best practices exist and employers should leverage them.
  • Employer practices related to onboarding new employers, support on the job, and opportunities for rapid advancement can make a huge difference in the success of a person who may be recently returning from incarceration. Our team members illuminated the many ways that employers have opened doors for them and what we are learning about how to support access to employment for people who have been justice involved and are at highest risk of gun violence in Chicago.

We see this conversation as a first step. Alongside employers we’re looking to support employers in taking tangible action steps like changes in hiring practices, onboarding, mentoring, support and recognizing and understanding triggers of trauma. Implementing these changes and integrating opportunity and dignity into businesses practices will require changing practice, policy, and recognizing and addressing implicit bias in the workplace among other things. Later this year, our teams will be identifying employers to pilot ideas to support access and onramps to opportunity for people who have been justice involved with an eye toward continuing to learn with and from employers about how practices and policies can be improved.

Since our conversation with the BEA, we have received amazing feedback from employers who are engaged, enthusiastic and curious to learn more and we look forward to continuing communication with them. This conversation is just the first step on the path to creating a society where we all, regardless of our past missteps or records, have the opportunity to obtain employment that is grounded in dignity and human rights.

If you would like to learn more about the work heartland Alliance is doing to connect employers and returning citizens, contact ni@heartlandalliance.org

About National Initiatives on Poverty & Economic Opportunity

Heartland Alliance’s National Initiatives on Poverty & Economic Opportunity is dedicated to ending chronic unemployment and poverty. We believe that every person deserves the opportunity to succeed in work and support themselves and their families. Through our field building, we provide support and guidance that fosters more effective and sustainable employment efforts. Our policy and advocacy work advances solutions to the systemic issues that drive chronic unemployment.