Back in 2015, Bill Livolsi Jr. had no trouble finding work even though he’d been convicted of wire fraud and was upfront with potential employers about his crime.

But that was before the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I am applying to jobs left, right and sideways, ” says Livolsi, who has been looking for work since April when he was released from federal prison after serving a 13-month sentence for the crime. “It is extremely difficult … They’re picking the cream of the crop when there are opportunities.”

Almost 1 in 3 adults in the United States has a criminal record, and finding a job when you have a past arrest or conviction has never been easy. But it’s become even more difficult in the midst of the economic downturn caused by the COVID-19 health crisis that has left millions of Americans unemployed and significantly increased the competition for jobs, public policy experts say. “Because of COVID-19 … everybody is having a harder time, and that would be exacerbated for people who are being released from prison,” says Kristen Broady, policy director for the Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institution, which focuses on economic policy.

Low-wage positions, a lifeline for those with limited prospects, are in high demand and short supply. Restaurants and other industries that offer lower-paying jobs have struggled amid shutdowns aimed at slowing the spread of the virus. And with a national unemployment rate of 6.7%, employers who have their pick of applicants may be less inclined to hire someone with a record, Broady and others say. The hiring dip threatens to slow the progress led by a growing number of states and municipalities to restore the rights of ex-offenders. They are passing laws that wipe criminal records clean, allow some who’ve committed felonies to vote, and bar employers from asking about criminal histories early in the hiring process.

Most urgently, the hiring slowdown may make it harder for the 620,000 men and women released from prison each year to get a fresh start and contribute to their communities, advocates and ex-offenders say. “Meaningful employment is crucial,” says Livolsi, 61, who lives in Owasso, Oklahoma. “It’s crucial to rebuild your self-esteem, to rebuild your ties with your family, and just to be able to put food on the table.’’

COVID makes hiring harder
The jobless rate for those who’ve been incarcerated has typically been much higher than the general population. A Brookings report published in March 2018 found that 45% of those released from prison did not have any reported pay in the first calendar year after they returned home. The current jobless rate for those who’ve been incarcerated is unclear, but placement services that work with ex-offenders believe it’s risen during a pandemic that has caused unemployment to soar across the board.

The Center for Employment Opportunities (CEO), which provides transitional employment, coaching and job placement for those released from prison, made 368 placements in April 2019. But in April 2020, near the start of the COVID-19 health crisis, only 140 of its applicants were able to find work. Similarly, for the period between July 1 and December 31, 2019, CEO found jobs for 1,793 of its applicants, but placements dropped by half, to 900, during that same period last year.

“We already know that in hiring, people with convictions face tremendous hurdles and I think COVID has just exacerbated those situations,” says Chris Watler, CEO’s chief external affairs officer.

70 Million Jobs, an employment agency for those with criminal records, says it was particularly successful in finding former offenders jobs in shipping, warehouses and food processing plants. But as the pandemic took hold, “business dropped almost overnight, by 90%,” says its founder Richard Bronson.

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