Missouri lawmakers, business advocates look at second-chance hiring

Gary Plummer
Gary Plummer

With many workplaces searching for employees, businesses and advocates are looking to a hiring pool that's seeking a second chance.

Jefferson City Area Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Gary Plummer said there had been conversations with local employers about second-chance hiring, or hiring individuals with a criminal record, especially with the worker shortage many manufacturers are experiencing.

"There's a large movement around it right now, especially with the hiring climate the way it is, and I know that major business organizations are looking at this as an opportunity to plow new ground in terms of hiring," Plummer said. "I know there's been some interest in that locally."

He said Jefferson City's proximity to correctional facilities might make it a hot spot to benefit from the second-chance workforce, and that a bill that might get its own second chance next legislative session could merit a look from the local business community.

Springfield Republican Rep. Alex Riley sponsored HB 720, known as the "Civil Liability for Employers Hiring Ex-Offenders Act," this legislative session. The proposal would have prevented lawsuits against employers, general contractors, premises owners or others for hiring a contractor or employee previously convicted of a non-violent or sexual offense.

The hiring of those individuals would have been inadmissible as evidence in any action against those employers under the legislation, but it would not cover negligent hiring practices or action against an employer for failing to adequately supervise those individuals.

"The idea behind that was really to try and help address two big problems that we have in the state," Riley said. "The first one is, you know, we've got a lot of employers who just they're trying to find employees, and there just aren't enough employees out there. The second issue that the bill works to resolve -- or at least helps resolve -- is it it's trying to provide ways for people who have had criminal convictions, they've done their time, that they've, they've paid off their debt to society to start to react on aid and start to rebuild their lives."

Riley said he had been approached by employers that sought to hire former offenders, but worried about potential legal action for hiring employees with criminal backgrounds. He said offering liability protections could help employers fill open positions and address turnover rates, while also allowing those getting out of prison the opportunity to gain meaningful employment.

"It would be good for everyone involved, and it had a lot of support," Riley said.

Riley was backed by several witnesses who supported the effort, including representatives for business advocate Associated Industries of Missouri, several area Chambers of Commerce and their statewide counterpart when the bill went before the House Judiciary Committee for an initial hearing a little more than a month before the end of the legislative session.

Heidi Sutherland, the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry's director of legislative affairs, told lawmakers the protections could encourage employers to offer former offenders a new opportunity while also bolstering those workforces.

"Twenty-seven percent of people who have been formerly incarcerated are unemployed, which is a stark contrast to our 3.6 percent national unemployment rate," Sutherland said. "This bill addresses some of the issues we're hearing from the businesses we represent that can feel very hesitant to hire people with convictions, because they're afraid of potential liability."

Despite the support and a lack of opposition in committee, the bill didn't see action beyond that public hearing. Its Senate counterpart from fellow Springfield Republican Sen. Curtis Trent didn't progress beyond a committee referral.

While the bill was caught up in the late-session rush, Riley said it was the first time that language had been filed, and that it more or less constituted a test run. He said he knew the bill, as it was, likely wasn't going to make it to the governor's desk, but like many first-year bills, it presented the opportunity to gauge interest from possible supporters, hear out concerns, and take feedback for a second attempt he hoped to file for next year.

"We wanted to start the process, try and get a committee hearing on it and start to raise awareness," Riley said. "This is something that I'm personally passionate about, both trying to help address our workforce shortage here in Missouri, and then also trying to help these folks who have some tough backgrounds start to rebuild their lives and become productive members of society get. And this bill, I think, really does a good job of trying to help with both of those issues."

Riley said the practice was an interest of both sides of the aisle and both the business and criminal justice reform sectors, two groups that don't always see eye-to-eye on legislative issues.

While the local chamber didn't throw its weight behind the bill this year, Plummer, the local chamber's CEO, said it would keep a close eye on a second attempt's progress.

"We didn't take a position of any of that legislation at the state level this year, but we would certainly consider taking a closer look," Plummer said. "That opportunity could garner a lot of interest from some of the major employers in the community."

The practice of second-chance hiring is common among major employers across the country, with Kroger, Verizon, Target and JPMorgan Chase among the corporations offering second-chance opportunities, according to the Second Chance Business Coalition, a cross-sector group of firms working to expand hiring and advancement practices for more workers.

The state chamber's Safer Missouri, Stronger Missouri call to action also identifies improving training and employment opportunities for incarcerated Missourians as tools to address rising violent crime and property crime across the state.

Worker placement is already a priority of the state itself, which was the first in the nation to sign on to the national ReEntry 2030 initiative encouraging state leaders to set goals to improve economic opportunity for those exiting prison, probation and parole through the start of the next decade.

The Missouri Department of Corrections set the goal of providing career services to 100 percent of those who need them, ensuring 85 percent of those released from prison find a job within 30 days and 80 percent of those released remain in those positions for at least nine months. The state reentry program is a multi-agency effort that also results from the contributions of faith-based groups, law enforcement, treatment providers, local governments and even victims, who are allowed to participate in and support the reentry process, according to DOC's website.

More than 300 employers across Missouri hire former offenders, according to the Department of Corrections.

DOC data show the transition from prison to the workforce could reduce the likelihood of recidivism: The department says 69 percent of those offenders who have never had a full-time employment opportunity return to prison, while only 23 percent of those who have found employment find themselves behind bars again.

While he doesn't know if the next session will see his bill through, Riley said he was hopeful the broad bipartisan interest in second-chance hiring would push it across the finish line soon.

"It's one of those bills that has some unexpected coalitions working together to accomplish a common good," Riley said. "I'm hopeful that, with their support and more work on this and other bills, we can get something accomplished."