Among the dozen or so felons hired by Lou Ann Amstutz and her husband Andy over the years, not every worker has been a model employee.
But never has there been a workplace safety or theft problem, Lou Ann Amstutz said.
"The majority of them are so thankful to have a job that they're willing to go the extra mile because they're so appreciative that you've taken an interest in them, period," said Amstutz, chief executive officer and vice president of operations for Alpha Machining and Manufacturing.
Ex-offenders often struggle to even get a chance to prove themselves as workers, according to local employment experts and those who help felons to find a job. A million-dollar federal grant to a Tulsa nonprofit announced in May will help tackle the problem in a state where an estimated one out of every 12 adults has a felony conviction.
Amstutz said she would advise other employers to not throw out applications simply because of a criminal past.
Out of all hires made by the small business, "I would almost say, if anything, we've had more success with the ones with felonies," Amstutz said.
Jon Nelson, manager of workforce centers in Sapulpa and Sand Springs, said he estimates that about 30 percent of people searching for work and seeking help at the centers have a felony conviction.
Lesser convictions rarely seem to have any impact on hiring decision, Nelson said. But a felony can be a red flag for many employers, he said.
His advice to ex-offenders on a job interview is to be straightforward about their past.
"Be honest and forthcoming with the question. If you try to hide or evade, they'll find out about it. If you're upfront and honest ... you stand a much better chance with that employer," Nelson said.
For those just out of prison, it can at least seem that not many employers will give a felon a chance.
Kathy Kifer served time on a drug conviction before being released from prison about four years ago.
"I came out and put in probably 15 applications the first week I was out. I didn't get a response from anybody," Kifer said. A certification as a fork lift operator didn't seem to matter to the many warehouse employers she applied to.
Kifer eventually found work in construction through Wings of Freedom, a faith-based organization focused on overcoming drug and alcohol addiction that also works with prison inmates.
Several other groups large and small attempt to help ex-offenders. Even without considering the personal circumstances of ex-offenders, the sheer numbers alone would make it seem like a daunting task in Oklahoma.
State researchers who in 2006 pegged the felony rate at about one in 12 noted that Oklahoma "has a long history of a high incarceration rate." From 1986 through 2006, Oklahoma ranked among the top four states in incarceration rates every single year, researchers noted -- a trend that has continued to hold true through 2010, the most recent year for which data is available.
Though the incarceration rate has begun to tick down slightly, that wasn't true until recently. While the national incarceration rate for all state inmates increased by 14 percent from 1995 through 2005, the rate in Oklahoma increased by 22 percent, state researchers noted.
In Oklahoma, felons can also have their criminal record held against them when applying for a variety of professional licenses. For example, state law authorizes the State Board of Cosmetology to deny licensure because of a felony conviction.
Second Chance. Dusty McAnally served one year in prison on a drug charge, then was hired by Alpha Manufacturing. Despite a relapse," Lou Ann and Andy Andy did not give up on me," McAnally wrote. He remains employed and is now in a faith-based recovery system.
Judy Massad-Carr breaks this bit of bad news to felons in Oklahoma City while leading workshops on employment as part of her job with the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission.
"They're very shocked," Massad-Carr said.
She tallied the restitution and fees that must often must be paid by ex-offenders. Often, an ex-offender must pay $100 monthly to meet such obligations.
Sheila Harbert, chief community outreach officer for Girl Scouts of Eastern Oklahoma, said her group began working with ex-offenders as part of a program started just to bring children to visit their incarcerated mothers.
She tells prospective employers that "they're the hardest workers."
"That part's true, because they're desperate to be employed," Harbert said.
She said state sanctions keep women she's worked with from getting jobs in day care or as home health care aides.
"They can always get jobs in fast food restaurants. The jobs nobody wants, they get those jobs," Harbert said.
But among the women who complete the education-based program offered by the scouting organization in partnership with Tulsa Community College, many have the skills to do more, Harbert said.
"Some of them are highly-educated women, and they deserve higher-paying jobs," she said.
Nelson said employers have different attitudes depending on the felony.
"Any kind of sex offense is pretty much just null and void," Nelson said, explaining that most companies "if they do a background check, they more often than not are going to steer away from those folks."
The million dollars in grant money will be going to the Community Service Council of Tulsa, one of only 18 such awards given out of 189 applications. The organization already helps felons find work, and received a $300,000 federal grant a few years ago for similar efforts focused on helping ex-offenders find employment.
The new grant money will focus on an effort tentatively called Tulsa Reentry One-Stop to be focused in north Tulsa, according to an abstract describing the proposal.
"Reentry One-Stop services will include employment readiness training, job development and placement services, training and education services, peer support and mentoring services," according to the abstract.
Council officials declined to discuss the program, noting that many questions remain about the grant. But the proposal calls for work to begin with inmates three months prior to their release through cooperation with the state's department of corrections, which oversees the prison system.
Several other education and nonprofit groups are tentatively on board to offer skills training in fields like auto technology, information technology, plumbing and welding. Additional funding would come from The George Kaiser Family Foundation, which would provide $100,000 in grant funds yearly, according to the proposal.
Why spend so much? The U.S. Department of Labor issued a statement to Urban Tulsa Weekly, noting that national statistics show that "almost three out of five returning ex-offenders will be charged with new crimes within three years of their release from prison and two out of five will be re-incarcerated."
Therefore, the department has "a compelling societal and economic interest to give ex-offenders a healthy alternative. If we don't, most will go right back through the prison door -- creating new victims and increasing costs to communities."
According to the department, a "rigorous evaluation" of the effectiveness of such grants is underway, with a study to be completed in 2015. According to the abstract for the Tulsa project, the goal is to help 400 ex-offenders over two years, with a target of 60 percent employment for the group.
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