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COVID-19 and Ex-Offender Employment

By Mark Schultz
June 2021

One out of every four people in the United States has a criminal record according to We Are All Criminals – an organization that is "dedicated to challenging society's perceptions of what it means to be 'criminal' … and seeks to erase the barriers that separate us." One of the major barriers that individuals with a criminal background face on a daily basis is obtaining gainful employment. The stigmatizing nature of being marked a "criminal" hinders their ability to obtain employment1. In addition, despite many employers saying they would give someone with a criminal record a chance, in practice this is not always the case 2.

These employment barriers play out in a variety of ways, including barriers to obtaining licenses for specific occupations (i.e. health care or social work), company policies against the hiring of people with certain offenses (i.e., assault or drugs), or implicit biases. Ultimately, this results in a reduction of the national employment rate, amounting to a loss of at least 1.7 million workers from the workforce and a cost of at least $78 billion to the economy, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, in 20183. The COVID-19 pandemic recession, which included layoffs, hiring freezes and business closures may have made it even more difficult for those stigmatized by a criminal record to gain employment.

Employment remains one of the strongest means of preventing recidivism – which is defined by the National Institute of Justice as a "relapse into criminal behavior, often after the person receives sanctions or undergoes intervention for a previous crime." However, not all jobs are created equal in regards to preventing recidivism. For example, Crutchfield and Pitchford4 found that individuals in "secondary sector" jobs, those with lower wages and "irregular" employment, have higher levels of criminality due to the unstable nature of those jobs. More specifically, some people in secondary sector jobs may experience more job instability, including lowered expectations that the job will last for a longer duration, or more time unemployed and therefore could have higher incidences of criminal behavior. On the other hand, Uggen5 found that employment in higher quality jobs (jobs with higher satisfaction ratings) reduces the likelihood of criminal behavior. Unfortunately, many of the jobs that people with criminal backgrounds obtain, at least initially, are in the secondary sector, characterized by job instability.

DEED's Job Vacancy Survey results illustrate the characteristics of secondary sector jobs (see Table 1). Sixty-six percent of the vacancies in Food Preparation & Serving Related are part-time as are almost half of the vacancies in Building & Grounds Cleaning & Maintenance. In addition, just over 40% of the job openings in Transportation & Material Moving are temporary or seasonal as are about half of Construction & Extraction vacancies. Moreover, the median wage offer for Food Preparation & Serving Related is $12.16 per hour, with Building & Grounds Cleaning & Maintenance at $14.36 hourly. Whether or not occupations within these occupational groups cause or hinder further criminality is beyond the scope of this analysis.

However, while some of the occupations may not be good long term options because of unstable schedules and low pay, they could act as a starting point for individuals with criminal backgrounds. The goal would be for these workers to use these jobs as a stepping stone to subsequent employment in jobs that may offer more stability, higher wages, and higher levels of job satisfaction. Six occupational groups may be well suited as starting points for people with criminal backgrounds: Food Preparation & Serving; Building & Grounds Cleaning & Maintenance; Construction & Extraction; Installation, Maintenance & Repair; Production; and Transportation & Material Moving occupations. While these are not the only occupational groups in which people with criminal backgrounds can obtain employment, they may have fewer hiring constraints based on having a criminal past.

Some occupational groups may include a higher share of jobs that require a certification or license, such as health care or social work. Licensure or certification may be difficult, if not impossible, to obtain for someone with a criminal conviction. For example, if the position requires working with vulnerable adults or children such as a Registered Nurse or Certified Nursing Assistant, both of which require certification, individuals with criminal backgrounds may not be eligible for that certification and, therefore, unable to obtain employment in these types of occupations.

In addition, individuals with certain types of crimes may not qualify for certain occupations. For example, if an individual has a drug conviction they likely will not be able to gain employment as a Pharmacy Aide since the job involves handling controlled substances. Other examples would be someone who had a DUI not being able to obtain employment as a truck driver or an individual with theft on their record being unable to gain employment in retail.

The six occupational groups listed above and in Table 1 have fewer restrictions resulting from the need for licensure or certification and fewer positions related to criminal behavior. However, some of these occupational groups are in the secondary sector with high percentages of part-time hours and temporary or seasonal employment, and/or lower median wage offers, which could lead to time spent out of the labor market or lower job satisfaction. In time, this could lead to subsequent deviant or criminal behavior according to Crutchfield and Pitchford's 1997 research findings. Nonetheless, gaining that first job remains a critical step.

Table 1. Minnesota Job Vacancy Characteristics (2nd Quarter 2020)

Occupational Group Vacancies Median Wage Offer Percent Part-Time Percent Temporary or Seasonal Percent Requiring Certificate or License
Total, All Occupations 111,753 $15.95 38% 19% 44%
Food Preparation & Serving Related 13,395 $12.16 66% 14% 10%
Building & Grounds Cleaning & Maintenance 5,601 $14.36 48% 37% 12%
Construction & Extraction 4,712 $17.85 4% 47% 50%
Installation, Maintenance, & Repair 3,609 $19.18 6% 7% 65%
Production 3,026 $16.99 6% 7% 12%
Transportation & Material Moving 8,564 $13.81 36% 41% 42%
Source: DEED Job Vacancy Survey

Unfortunately some of these six "starting point" occupational groups were the ones hit hardest by the pandemic recession including Food Preparation & Serving Related, which jumped by over 72,000 continued Unemployment Insurance (UI) continued claims or a devastating 4,152% from the beginning of the year to its peak date the week of May 2, 2020. Among the remaining occupational groups in Table 1, UI continued claims in Building & Grounds Cleaning & Maintenance rose by 305.% from the beginning of the year to its peak date, Construction & Extraction rose by 35.7%, Installation, Maintenance & Repair saw a jump of 650.%, Production occupations experienced an increase of 620%, and Transportation & Material Moving saw an upsurge of 276% (see Table 2).

Table 2. Minnesota Continued Claims Rise and Recovery by Occupational Group

- Food Preparation & Serving Related Building & Grounds Cleaning & Maintenance Construction & Extraction Installation, Maintenance & Repair Production Transportation & Material Moving
Start Date 1/11/2020 1/11/2020 1/11/2020 1/11/2020 1/11/2020 1/11/2020
Start Estimate 1,738 2,518 26,958 1,546 3,537 4,699
Peak Date 5/2/2020 4/18/2020 4/4/2020 4/18/2020 5/9/2020 4/18/2020
Peak Estimate 73,899 10,195 36,593 11,602 25,467 17,666
End Date 3/27/2021 3/27/2021 3/27/2021 3/27/2021 3/27/2021 3/27/2021
End Estimate 7,490 2,821 23,998 1,950 5,409 5,996
Numeric Rise 72,161 7,677 9,635 10,056 21,930 12,967
Percent Rise 4152.0% 304.9% 35.7% 650.5% 620.0% 276.0%
Numeric Recovery -66,409 -7,374 -12,595 -9,652 -20,058 -11,670
Percent Recovery -89.9% -72.3% -34.4% -83.2% -78.8% -66.1%
Source: DEED PROMIS Data

While each of these occupational groups saw rapid increases in the number of UI continued claims, even during 2nd quarter 2020 at the peak of the pandemic recession job loss there were many job vacancies. Moreover, they have all seen varying levels of recovery since the early months of the pandemic. The largest percentage decrease of UI continued claims was in Food Preparation & Serving Related occupations, which dropped by 89.9% from its peak date to April 2021, the most recent month for which data is available. Installation, Maintenance & Repair also saw a decrease of over 80%, while Production declined by 78.8%, Building & Grounds Cleaning & Maintenance saw a drop of 72.3%, Transportation & Material Moving saw a recovery to the tune of 66.1% and Construction & Extraction declined by 34.4% (see Table 2).

The stigmatizing effect of having a criminal background as it pertains to gaining employment should come as no real surprise to anyone in the field. Although the labor force shortage that existed pre-pandemic may have loosened those barriers a bit, the fact remains that a criminal record is one of the hardest employment barriers to overcome.

The COVID-19 pandemic may have made it even harder for individuals with criminal backgrounds to obtain gainful employment as many of the jobs that were lost were in occupational groups in which they may be more likely to, at least initially, gain employment including Food Preparation & Serving Related or Production. However, as the pandemic eases, employers are facing shortages of workers to ramp businesses back up. This tightening of the labor market, combined with the skills and labor that workers with criminal backgrounds can offer to employers, may lead many to achieve the ultimate goal: stable and satisfying employment.

1Pager, Devah. 2003. The Mark of a Criminal Record. American Journal of Sociology. 108(3): 937-975

2Pager, Devah. 2005. Walking the Talk? What Employers Say Versus What They Do. American Sociological Review. 70(3): 355-380

3National Conference of State Legislatures. 2018. Barriers to work: People with Criminal Records. Retrieved 1/14/2021 (

4Crutchfield, Robert D., and Susan R. Pitchford. 1997. Work and Crime: The Effects of Labor Stratification. Social Forces. 76(1): 93-118.

5Uggen, Christopher. 1999. Ex-Offenders and the Conformist Alternative: A Job Quality Model of Work and Crime. Social Problems. 46(1): 127-151.

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