Some of the largest companies in the country just agreed to help former prisoners overcome one of the greatest hurdles to successful re-entry: finding employment.
On Monday, five months after President Obama ordered federal employers to ban the criminal history box on job applications, Starbucks, Google, Uber, and a host of other corporate giants signed the White House’s Fair Chance Business Pledge to make access to private sector jobs easier. Some, including Xerox and the famous Greyston Bakery, pledged to ban the box from their applications. PepsiCo, Prudential Financial, and Libra Group committed to job skills training, and Google said it will host forums with formerly incarcerated people to hear their specific needs and recruit other tech companies to ban the box.
Big name corporations that banned the box in the past, including Facebook, the Coca-Cola Company, American Airlines, Koch Group, and Starbucks, simply signed the pledge to reaffirm their commitment to equal opportunity hiring.
As of 2014, nearly 90 percent of all employers in the United States asked job applicants about their criminal histories, and 60 to 75 percent of former inmates could not find work within the first year of their release. Unable to secure a steady job to meet their most basic needs — finding housing and paying for food and clothes — people are more likely to resort to criminal activity to survive.
“I just got out of jail doing six years, and that box was the thing that kept leading me back into incarcerations, due to the simple fact that I had a criminal record, and anytime you have a felony or whatever the case may be, it holds you back from certain jobs,” Christopher Williams, a formerly incarcerated Massachusetts resident, previously explained to ThinkProgress. “To me, it was discrimination because, you didn’t even ask me, what do I have a felony for. You just straight up told me you’ll call me in three days and it’s been three weeks and you never called me back. I get frustrated and it leads me back to the same thing I went to jail for.”
Aside from limiting employment opportunities, forcing applicants to disclose criminal histories costs the country $65 billion a year in lost GDP. The latest White House-sponsored pledge is a sign that the fight to ban the box is moving to the corporate world, which can largely benefit from the 70 million Americans with a criminal record.
Although the pledge could help countless people who were previously turned away from the job market, that doesn’t mean corporations are fully on board with reform. Many, including Wal-mart, Victoria’s Secret, and McDonald’s, still benefit from cheap prison labor that yields $2 billion a year. By paying inmates less than a dollar a day to perform grueling tasks such as farming, sewing, shoveling snow, and scrubbing toilets, companies can both reduce costs and reap the financial benefits of a widely unregulated workforce.