Meet the Competition 

Ex-cons clog Cleveland's unemployment lines. And it's about to get worse

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Michael Brown spent his 50th birthday serving time for the only conviction of his life. Yet some good came of it, he insists: He was released in March 2007 a born-again Christian, sober, and committed to a new life.

"[Prison] was a place that I never thought I would be at 50 years old," he says. "So I made a lot of changes while I was incarcerated so that I wouldn't return to that lifestyle."

Since his release, Brown has written a book on his spiritual transformation and become a minister at a local non-denominational church. But he hasn't found meaningful work.

"I was searching for all kinds of jobs. I wasn't really particular," he says. "Even though my history was in administration, I was looking for janitorial, security, jobs with the Cleveland Clinic — all kinds of jobs.

"I did applications on the net. I did door to door. I finally wound up doing some landscaping."

Ironically, state law bars ex-felons from holding some of the jobs that attracted Brown's attention and matched his abilities. He can't work as a bank or hospital security officer, or as an EMT. Even being a volunteer firefighter is out of bounds. The prohibitions extend into health care — already a major industry across Northeast Ohio and one poised for rapid growth. Ex-felons can't work as aides in a nursing home, hospice, or a hospital because they can't hold jobs that involve providing direct care to older adults — or to children, for that matter. The restrictions are permanent, except for those rare occasions when a pardon is granted or a conviction reversed.

Despite Cleveland's change in application questioning, hiding a criminal history is almost impossible, now that criminal background checks are a routine part of the hiring process. A survey by the Society of Human Resource Management, a national organization for human resources professionals, found that 79 percent of employers performed criminal background checks on all job candidates. Ex-felons are especially stigmatized. The poll found 95 percent of respondents would not hire a candidate who had a conviction for a violent felony, and 79 percent would not hire someone convicted of a non-violent felony. But misdemeanors matter too: 58 percent of respondents wouldn't hire a candidate with a violent misdemeanor conviction; 22 percent said they wouldn't hire someone with a non-violent misdemeanor conviction.

Jill Rizika, executive director of Towards Employment, believes the prevalence of background checks is sending more dislocated workers to her organization's workshops for ex-offenders.

"We've been seeing over the last two years ... more people who have a criminal background, have been out for a while working, have lost their job due to the recession, and now it's so much harder for them to get back in," she says. "They've got work experience and skills. The issue is the criminal background."

Of course, the economic downturn is the reason most lost their jobs in the first place. And it's why ex-offenders are at such a disadvantage.

During the first decade of the 21st century, Cuyahoga County lost 132,762 jobs, according to George Zeller, an independent expert on the region's economy. From 2002 to 2007, all of those job losses were in Cleveland. But from 2007 to 2010, positions started disappearing in the suburbs too. Meanwhile, according to Zeller's analysis, jobs grew in social assistance, health care, and education — the very fields that bar ex-cons from consideration in most cases, according to state law.

"Things are getting worse for those who have no felony record," Zeller says. "The context for guys with a felony is that they are in a labor market with tough competition for the jobs that are left."

It's been more than four years since Michael Brown's release from prison. At 55, he's still looking for his first steady work. He's had a small job as a church security guard, but was eventually laid off. He'd been able to piece together enough yard-work gigs to buy a truck and some equipment, and he got an apartment of his own on East 93rd Street, near Kinsman.

So he crosses his fingers, reads the Bible, and renews his faith at every turn.

"I have to keep focused on the Lord first and foremost, and then focus on the things that I know I need to do to become a successful person in life."

Just recently, Brown was turned down for another job. He asked for a reason why, but got no response. He figures it's the felony.

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