Melissa spent months looking for a job — any job. For days, the 25-year-old consistently visited her welfare-to-work program in downtown Brooklyn, resume in hand and an interview smile splashed across her face.
"Every day, Monday through Friday, 9 to 4," she explains. "That's dedication."
Melissa, who asked us to not reveal her last name, has plenty of job experience. She's a self-identified "people person" and says she aces every interview. But there's just one thing holding her back: the past.
When she was 15 years old, Melissa hung out with an older man, who she says manipulated her and eventually became her pimp. She was 19 when she pleaded guilty to her third and final conviction for loitering for prostitution.
"I had no knowledge. I was young and I was like 'OK, whatever, yes, just let me go home,' " she says.
She had no idea that her past, and not necessarily just the tough job climate, would be a roadblock to a salary years after her convictions.
Melissa is just one of the millions with criminal records who face higher hurdles than most in finding employment. According to some estimates, 1 in 5 Americans has a criminal record — which can last a lifetime.
Employers Flouting The Law
While it's generally illegal for employers to indiscriminately deny all applicants with criminal records, many still do. A quick look at New York job postings on Craigslist, for example, reveals common caveats: "absolutely no felony convictions" or "must have clean criminal record."
"This is blatantly illegal hiring practice," says Sally Friedman, a lawyer at the Legal Action Center.
It's not that it's against the law to consider a job applicant's past convictions. In fact, it's kind of the opposite. The no-criminal-records-allowed policy rule, Friedman explains, may lead employers to throw out solid candidates.
"They have to look at each person individually; that's New York's law," she says.
But even in New York, which leads the country in legal protections for people with criminal records, finding a job with a record of convictions or arrests can be tough.
Melissa says she recently landed a job selling tickets at a tourist attraction, only to receive an email the day before orientation that read, "We must withdraw our offer due to the background check."
"That had me upset also," she says. "Like, wow, I can't even get a job doing cashiering. What kind of work can I do?"
The employer didn't respond to a request for comment, but Melissa says that kind of outright rejection is common. Even more commonly, she never gets a call back when an application asks if she has any convictions and she marks "yes."
Limited Job Prospects
But is that actually discrimination? Princeton professor Devah Pager researched that question in the New York City Hiring Discrimination Study.
"We hired groups of young men to pose as job applicants, and we sent them all over New York City applying for real low-wage, entry-level job openings," she explains.
Researchers recruited young men who were similar in job experience, education, skills, and even physical attractiveness. They sent them to 250 employers with fictitious resumes that were identical with the exception that some had a minor drug possession conviction.
Results revealed that the job applicant with a conviction was nearly 50 percent less likely to be called back or receive a job offer.
"It's clear that simply having a criminal record irrespective of any other personal characteristics about the candidates had a huge negative impact on their likelihood of finding work, even in these kinds of low-wage, low-skill kinds of positions," Pager explains.
Melissa's strategy for dealing with that bias is to try avoiding the issue entirely.
"So, I basically had it in my mind 'OK, if I get a job, I need a place that's not gonna run a background check because if they do I'm not getting hired,' " she says with a reserved chuckle. "So that was my new game plan."
It's a plan that has real costs. According to a survey from the Society for Human Resources Management, 2 out of 3 employers require a background check for every single hire.
But for Melissa, at least, it seems to have paid off. She recently landed a job at a grocery chain that didn't require a background check.
"Getting the feel of, you know, receiving a paycheck, that's the best thing, really," she says.
It's a paycheck that comes out to about $175 a week — a salary for her, her 19-year-old brother and a 2-year-old daughter.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
As hard as it's been lately to find jobs in this country, it's especially hard for people who have committed crimes. An estimated one in five Americans has a criminal record. And while punishment is usually temporary, those records can last forever.
Our story comes from reporter Stan Alcorn.
STAN ALCORN, BYLINE: To find companies in New York breaking state and federal employment discrimination law, all you need is the Internet.
SALLY FRIEDMAN: Is it going to look for felony if I type felon?
FRIEDMAN: Or do I have to do this?
ALCORN: I asked Sally Friedman, a lawyer at the Legal Action Center, to search job postings with me on Craigslist.
FRIEDMAN: Oh, here. Here we go. Here we go. First one. OK.
ALCORN: In about two minutes, we found a job posting for a lobby attendant, with a catch.
FRIEDMAN: And it says absolutely no felony convictions.
ALCORN: And so your legal opinion on this would be?
FRIEDMAN: This is blatantly illegal hiring practice.
ALCORN: It's not that it's against the law to consider a job applicant's past convictions. In fact, it's kind of the opposite. The problem with this kind of no-criminal-records-allowed policy is that it means not looking at those records and throwing out good candidates just because they got caught with marijuana when they were teenagers. New York goes even further by spelling out what employers have to consider, things like the seriousness of the offense and its relevance to the job.
FRIEDMAN: They have to look at each person individually. That's New York's law.
ALCORN: Nice to meet you.
MELISSA: Nice to meet you.
ALCORN: Thanks for letting me in.
I met Melissa outside her welfare-to-work program in downtown Brooklyn. She was about to go to a job interview.
MELISSA: The address, do you have your resume, go in with a smile on your face and good luck.
MELISSA: That's basically it.
ALCORN: And do you go here every day?
MELISSA: Yes, every day, Monday through Friday, 9:00 to 4:00. So that's dedication.
ALCORN: She has plenty of job experience, and she says she aces every interview. But the problem for Melissa and the reason she asked us not to use her last name is her past. She says that as a rebellious 15-year-old, she started hanging out with an older man who manipulated her and eventually became her pimp. She was 19 when she pled guilty to her third and final conviction of loitering for prostitution.
MELISSA: I had no knowledge. I was young. And I was like, OK, whatever. Yes, just let me go home.
ALCORN: You had no idea that it would be, six years later, keeping you from jobs?
MELISSA: Yeah, no idea at all.
ALCORN: She recently got a job selling tickets at a local tourist attraction. But on what she says was the day before she was supposed to go in for orientation, she got an email. We must withdraw our offer, it said, due to the background check.
MELISSA: That had me upset also. Like, wow, I can't even get a job doing cashiering. Like, what kind of work can I do?
ALCORN: That employer didn't respond to our requests for comment, but Melissa says that kind of direct rejection was common. Even more common: A job application would ask if she had any convictions. She'd put yes, and then she wouldn't get called back. But is that actually discrimination?
Princeton professor Devah Pager has researched the question.
DEVAH PAGER: We hired groups of young men to pose as job applicants, and we sent them all over New York City, applying for real low-wage, entry level job openings.
ALCORN: Those young men were identical in job experience, education, skills, except that one of them had an old, minor drug possession charge. The study found that that job applicant was half as likely to get called back.
PAGER: It's clear that simply having a criminal record, irrespective of any other personal characteristics about the candidates, had a huge negative impact on their likelihood of finding work, even in these low-wage, low-skill kinds of positions.
ALCORN: Melissa's strategy for dealing with that bias has been to try to avoid the issue entirely.
MELISSA: So, yeah, I basically had it in my mind, OK, if I get a job, I need a place that's not going to run a background check because if they do, I'm not getting hired.
MELISSA: So that was my new game plan.
ALCORN: It's a plan that has real costs. According to a survey by the Society for Human Resources Management, two out of three employers require a background check for every single hire. But for Melissa, at least, it seems to have paid off.
That afternoon at the welfare-to-work center, she told me that she and another woman had gotten jobs at a supermarket.
MELISSA: Getting the feel of, you know, receiving a paycheck, that's the best thing, really.
ALCORN: A paycheck that comes out to about $175 a week to support her, her 19-year-old brother and her 2-year-old daughter.
For NPR News, I'm Stan Alcorn in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.