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At Job Fair, Ex Offenders Seek Jobs, And A Second Chance

Helen Ubinas

May 12, 2011

State employees might be hoping to keep their jobs. But the ex-offenders who attended a job fair at the Connecticut Expo Center on Wednesday were just hoping to get one.

"Everywhere; I've applied everywhere," said Tarrion Milledge. Milledge, dressed in a crisp yellow dress shirt and tie, was recently released from a seven-year prison stint mostly for drug charges.

Since then, the 31-year-old has followed the same daily routine: Each morning, he leaves his house and hits any place he thinks might be hiring. If he's already filled out an application, he calls to follow up. Sometimes, so often, employers stop taking his calls.

Throughout the job fair, many of the 200 ex-offenders clutching resumes and recommendations from case managers and prison programs shared similar stories as they moved from table to table staffed by potential employers.

"Let's see," Steve Moran said, squinting his eyes as he recalled where he'd applied since getting out of prison five months ago. "I've applied at five different Wendy's, about three — no, four Burger Kings. Probably every Kentucky Fried Chicken around me. And Dunkin' Donuts? Forget it. A lot — more than six."

Moran, 39, works part-time at a nearby Ruby Tuesday's, which makes him luckier than most. But every time he applies for permanent work, he says, employers get around to his criminal record — in his case, 18 years for killing a man in 1993 — and he doesn't hear from them again.

The stigma that many ex-offenders face when seeking employment is why Chrysalis Center, in collaboration with the Greater Hartford Reentry Council, held the aptly named "Second Chance Employment and Resource Fair." The fair was solely for ex-offenders deemed job-ready by various participating organizations — which meant it was often hard to tell the suited-up potential employees from employers.

If taking a risk on someone who's paid his debt to society wasn't enough incentive, employers were reminded of tax breaks for hiring ex-cons through the Second Chance Act.

Walter Donne, human resource manager for Lex Products, said he hesitated when first approached about hiring ex-cons. If given the choice, he remembers thinking, why would an employer want to hire someone with a criminal record over someone without one?

With roughly 171,000 Connecticut residents out of work and looking for jobs, that's a question that many employers are increasingly likely to ask themselves. But Donne said he found that ex-offenders often make better employees than most think because they have something to prove.

"It's about overcoming fear," he said. "Employers overcoming fear of hiring ex-offenders and ex-offenders overcoming fear of being rejected."

But it's also about everyone finally getting honest about re-entry and recidivism. Giving ex-offenders jobs isn't just good for them; it's good for public safety, for the economy and for every community that these men and women are moving into after they've done their time.

Not surprisingly, there were more job seekers than jobs Wednesday. But some got lucky. The Connecticut Convention Center got 150 applications; it expects to hire 12 people next week. Seventy-five people applied for jobs at Burris Logistics; it expects to hire 10 people next month. Laz Parking hired three people. Other companies took resumes and scheduled interviews. Participants also connected to training opportunities at New England Tractor Training School, Lincoln Tech and Stone Academy.

Dunkin' Donuts hired at least one ecstatic future employee. Iovanna Elias, 35, who served seven years for assault, was beaming when she shared the news that she'd start training next week. She was hired on the spot, she said, after successfully defining customer service.

Although he'd already applied at several Dunkin' Donuts, Elias' good news prompted Milledge to ask the representative about other openings. He did his best to hide his disappointment when he was offered an application instead of a job.

"It's hard," he said, walking away from the table. "There are a lot of temptations. You want to get a job and you want to change and then you get rejected."

But then he seemed to catch himself.

"No, I don't care how long it takes. I'm going to keep trying. I'm ready to turn my life around. I just have to keep looking."

Helen Ubiñas' column appears on Thursdays and Sundays. Read her blog, Notes From Hel, at courant.com/helen and follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/NotesFromHeL.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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