Value Creation - Experience - Commitment

Ex-Cons Find Other Jobs Pay In Labor Pinch
B Paulette Thomas
Wearing a white jacket, gloves, a mask and hairnet, Edward Zebrak sets to work at 4 a.m. in a cavernous, refrigerated processing plant in Cleveland. where lines of workers chop and package vegetables. “This place has its moments,’ he says over the din.
It is a big improvement over the previous 812 years, which Mr. Zebrak spent in an Ohio prison for a violent crime. Produce Packaging Ltd. hired him from a halfway house for parolees as part of its strategy to stem high employee turnover. After seven months at the company, Mr. Zebrak now supervises 20 people. “Has he only been here seven months?” says office manager Therese Poulos, flipping through paperwork. “He’s a good, hard worker. It seems like he’s been here longer.”
This plant is one spot where economic reality and criminal justice intersect in America. As the nation’s businesses are increasingly squeezed by a labor shortage, they are turning to one of the very few places left where workers aren’t in short supply — prisons.
U.S. prisons now house a record 1.7 million inmates, who are often released to halfway houses or work-release programs at the end of their sentences. And companies are hiring them. The surprise, for many of those businesses, is how reliable these workers can be — and how high they can rise in the hierarchy.
No doubt, the parolees do so well in part because they are under tight supervision and risk returning to jail if they lose a job or fall a drug test. “If there’s one distinguishing factor, it’s that their attendance is impeccable,” says Charles Walden, chief executive of J.L. French Corp., an automotive-parts maker in Sheboygan, Wis., which has a couple dozen inmates on its payroll. Several of them wear electronic- monitoring devices under their work boots.
The hiring strategy has some hazards. There are the bureaucratic hassles, such as having to notify parole officers about overtime work in advance. Some hires are hostile, or prone to drug problems. At Produce Packaging, one parolee worked out so well that he, like Mr. Zebrak, became a supervisor But this man went on a crack cocaine binge when job pressures grew too stressful and was later arrested for breaking into the company office.
Produce Packaging began hiring from such programs a few years ago, grasping at any possible way to deal with annual work-force turnover of 70%. About half its employees now come from prison halfway houses and drug-rehabilitation programs, and turnover has fallen to 40%. Two of its six supervisors are from halfway houses.
“Entry-level people you hire off the street generally wouldn’t be any more polished than the people we get from the programs,” says Ms. Poulos, the office manage!. Some of the scariest people are the hardest workers.”
Many ex-cons are making their mark above entry levels. Since many parolees are older than recent high-school graduates or dropouts, their age and experience can make it easier for them in more senior slots. Street and prison life, it turns out, aren’t bad ways to prepare for certain jobs.
For instance, at Omni Computer Products, a Carson, Calif., computer-parts distributor, three out of four vice presidents of sales are from halfway-house or substance-abuse programs. About one-third of the company’s 250 employees — nearly all of them in sales — are from such programs. Ex-cons, says Chief Executive Gerald Chamales, have “street smarts” from sizing people up and “reptile skin,” useful in deflecting the constant rejection of telemarketing.
“They know urgency and focus,” Mr. Chamales says. Still, he quickly acknowledges, “This isn’t for the faint of heart.”
Last week, Mr. Chamales says he spent several hours assembling a team of employees to help a relapsed sales manager get into a detox center and find care for her four-year-old child. Another time, Mr. Chamales got death threats from an employee who had been tired after a kickback scheme was exposed. There was also the time the company had to clear out the office for bomb-sniffing dogs, after a disgruntled employee telephoned to say he had planted a bomb. All the incidents involved halfway-house hires.
But sometimes, the hires work out. Joseph Hiller, now a senior vice president of sales supervising 120 people, had been a steady drug user for years when he was arrested for drunken driving. Onmi hired him 14 years ago through a hospital rehab program. His climb through the ranks at Omni helped him keep his life straight. “I need structure,” Mr. Hiller says. “I need discipline. Now I’m a workaholic.”
Mr. Chamales says he is willing to be a pioneer because he spent a decade strung out on drugs and alcohol. Then he got training from a social-services agency and landed a job cold-selling computers by telephone, eventually starting his own business selling computers. The experience influenced his management style. For instance, he looks for evidence from job applicants that they are in counseling or support groups. And, flouting the national trend toward casual attire, he requires business dress, which he believes instills a professional attitude. After six months, Mr. Chamales says, Omni usually knows if the hire is good. While turnover in the first six months is 50%, after that it drops to 27%.
It isn’t a free ride for 0mm. New hires get a mentor right away, for coaching on skills like getting along with people and problem-solving. The company also has some $250,000 in personal loans outstanding to employees — often for legal fees and drug fines.
In some cases, companies are looking to prison inmates even before they return to the streets.
J.L. French has faced unemployment rates of about 2.5% in Sheboygan for years. In Wisconsin, some prisoners are required to hold down paying jobs on the outside to make restitution and defray incarceration costs. Making the rounds of prisons, J.L. French’s production vice president, Joe Harrison, discovered Kelly O’Brien, who was serving a two-year sentence in the county jail for battery and driving while intoxicated.
Mr. Harrison offered Mr. O’Brien, a former construction worker, a factory job while he did time. But Mr. O’Brien spurned it in favor of an outdoor construction job — from which he promptly escaped. “They made it too easy for me to walk away,” Mr. O’Brien says.
Hauled back to jail, he got the job Mr. Harrison had offered. Mr. Harrison urged him to seek a promotion, and in several months, he won the job of rile caster. “He kept after me,” says Mr. O’Brien.
With his monitoring device chafing at his ankle, Mr. O’Brien works the second shift and attends meetings of the company’s alcohol program. He struck up a romance with a woman who works at the factory. They dream of raising a few horses on a farm together after his scheduled release from prison July 10.
Mr. O’Brien says he gets stressed out when his supervisor yells. “But I am on pretty good terms with the supervisor,” he says. “I’ve learned to bite my tongue.” One reason, he says: “I definitely plan to stay here when my term is up.”