When Angela Huddleston went searching for a new job in July of 2020, she wasn’t sure if her criminal record – two DUIs and one charge for possession of methamphetamine – would serve as an insurmountable barrier towards finding something better. 

To her own surprise, she was soon offered a job as a receptionist at a Chevy dealership in Vinita, Oklahoma. Her new position was an upgrade in every sense compared to her previous job stocking shelves at a Dollar Tree, she said, between better pay and opportunities for career advancement. 

“I applied one day and got hired the next,” said Huddleston, who is one of several employees working at the dealership with a criminal record. “I can honestly say they gave each of us a fair chance.”

Not long ago, applications from people with backgrounds like Huddleston’s often got tossed aside. But now, with job openings at a record high and the unemployment rate near its pre-pandemic low, businesses are scrambling to find workers. That is leading employers to take a second look and hire candidates that might have once been seen as unfavorable, such as those with disabilities or criminal records. 

“In both cases, a tight labor market can help pull those workers in and get them the opportunities they’re interested in,” said AnnElizabeth Konkel, an economist at the Indeed Hiring Lab. “Employers can’t be as choosy as they might have been in the past.”

The labor market was quite strong before the pandemic began – unemployment was at its lowest since 1969 – but the current demand for employees has given job seekers the upper hand, enabling them not just to find jobs but to move around in search of better pay and opportunities.

That’s partly because of the imbalance between the number of people who are unemployed and the total number of unfilled jobs. In March, there were 11.5 million vacant positions in the U.S. and fewer than 6 million people actively looking for work, a ratio of 1.9 jobs per job seeker. In February of 2020, that ratio was just 1.2 jobs to unemployed people.

The federal government doesn’t regularly collect employment statistics for people with criminal records, but a recent study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics highlighted that a third of people released from federal prisons in 2010 didn’t find employment at any point in the four years after their release. 

Data from Indeed suggests more businesses are open to hiring those impacted by the criminal justice system.

Employers advertise positions open to people with criminal histories by including terms in postings such as “felon friendly” and “criminal record will not disqualify,” among similar phrases. In March of this year, the number of job postings advertising what’s referred to as fair chance hiring on Indeed was up 33.7% compared to the same month in 2019 and 5% compared to March of 2020.

Despite the increase, those jobs still make up a small fraction of the overall postings, at just 2.5% of all jobs hosted on the website in March. But that’s only counting positions that explicitly say they’re open to hiring people with criminal records and doesn’t mean they wouldn’t necessarily get job offers from ones that don’t.

The share of searches by job seekers looking for positions on Indeed containing phrases like “no background check,” “felon friendly” and “second chance” is up 43.9% in the year through March and 134% compared to March of 2019.

Konkel said people with criminal backgrounds are hearing about the labor shortage and “thinking there may be an opportunity for [them] right now.”

A similar thought process is playing out among people with disabilities. 

Eric Sogo, a 25-year-old from Staten Island, faces mobility issues due to myotonic muscular dystrophy, a condition that causes weakness in his arms, hands and hips. Sogo was let go from his job in July of 2021, but it only took him a couple of weeks to land a new position working as a lifestyle coach at a nonprofit called Person Centered Care Services.

“I was desperate for a job, so I was applying to whatever I could,” said Sogo. “They got back to me two or three days later, said they were understaffed and that I’d be a great fit for them.”

Finding a new position so quickly was a relief for Sogo, but he described it as also somewhat strange, having spent months in the past looking for a new place to work between jobs. And the state of the labor market has encouraged him to keep on looking, in hopes of finding a virtual job that would be more compatible with his mobility needs.

“People with disabilities are still disadvantaged when applying to jobs, but it feels like the labor shortage has changed their chances a little bit,” said Sogo. “Because I have a disability, yes it might be harder, but I’m not letting that discourage me.”

The Institute on Disability at the University of New Hampshire’s research director, Andrew Houtenville, said people with disabilities are seeing “unprecedented levels” of employment since the pandemic began compared to their overall population.

77.3% of people without disabilities between the ages of 16 to 64 were either working or looking for a job in March, slightly below pre-pandemic levels, but for people with disabilities, the percentage of people participating in the workforce has increased from 33.8% in February of 2020 to 37.8% in March of this year.

For people with disabilities, the unemployment rate among those 16 years old and over peaked at 18.9% in April of 2020 and has since moderated to 8.3% in April of this year.

“The story here is that people with disabilities have recovered from the pandemic,” said Houtenville. “It could be that transportation is less of a barrier because there are more [job] opportunities, locally.”

He noted that working from home could be a benefit for some people with disabilities but not everyone, particularly workers that are looking for a higher degree of social integration and that it’s “dependent on the type of disability and those personal circumstances.”

There’s a chance that as the Federal Reserve tamps down on inflation by raising interest rates that the benefits of a tight labor market will go away. It could greatly diminish the number of available jobs by making it more expensive for businesses to borrow and leaving them with less cash on hand. Konkel said, “If a tight labor market would really reverse itself, the kind of window of opportunity for individuals with criminal records may shrink.”

But she remains somewhat optimistic. Going into a labor market with more slack, Konkel hopes employers will remember that “during crunch time, individuals that maybe they wouldn’t have turned to in the past really helped kind of save the day.”

Luis “Suave” Gonzalez came home from prison in 2017 after serving 31 years for a first-degree homicide he was convicted of when he was 17. Gonzalez started working as an administrator at the Community College of Philadelphia in February of this year and doesn’t see the change in perception towards people with criminal histories as anything less than a permanent shift.

“Once that door is open for you, it’s open for a lot of people,” he said. “If I do good, the chances are that they’re going to hire two or three more people that’ve been formerly incarcerated.”

The program he helps oversee, called I Am More, assists people impacted by the criminal justice system as they transition into college by offering them tailored services that include mentorship, tutoring and a foot in the door with prospective employers. Recent participants of the program have secured jobs within Philadelphia’s City Hall and District Attorney’s Office.

“The narrative is changing,” he said. “If you have a certain skill that will be beneficial to an employer, they’re really going to consider you, and for some positions that lived experience is what they’re looking for.”

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